The Long Paddock by Alissa Callen

Chapter One

The kelpie population of small town Woodlea might outnumber the locals two-to-one, but it seemed as though every man—and their dog—was in town today.

Cressida Knight rounded the corner to walk along Main Street. Rows of dusty vehicles huddled beneath the shade of leafy plane trees. Dogs slept on the back of utes or strained at their leashes to make new friends. Cressy bit back a smile. If Mrs Knox didn’t stop chatting to Mrs Mills soon, the next lot of puppies from her prizewinning poodle would be more pig-dog than pedigree.

Cressy lengthened her stride and walked into the long shadow cast by the two-storey pub. The historic Royal Arms never seemed to age. The white wrought-iron trim gleamed in the late-afternoon sunlight just like it had when she was a child strolling by holding her grandfather’s calloused hand. Loss crawled through her, making her feel wooden and heavy. Her feet dragged. The simplicity of her childhood hadn’t followed her into adulthood.

Animated chatter wafted with the smell of beer from the open doorway. The local grapevine was in overdrive. Everyone had just one thing on their mind. Denham Rigby. But however much the town held its collective breath for the first sighting of its favourite son, she had to appear unaffected. She’d worked hard to strip the past of its power to hurt her. Denham would soon arrive to attend his mother’s funeral but today was just like any other day.

She pulled the brim of her State Emergency Services cap lower to hide her face. Once past the pub she’d enter the social hub of Main Street where locals dawdled between the grocery store and newsagency. She’d drawn the genetic short-straw, missing the height gene as well as the gene that gifted her sister with a darker complexion. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t always prevent her pale skin from blushing and revealing her thoughts. She loved the warmth of small town life but her feelings weren’t always for public consumption.

She waved at Mrs Higgins, who sat in front of the craft store behind a trestle table on which perched a painting of a Black Angus cow by a local artist. The town’s committee was busy fundraising for the restoration of the church bell in the historic Anglican Church. Time might have eroded the mountings of the iconic bell but not the devotion of its congregation. Mrs Higgins returned Cressy’s wave and gave a subtle nod towards something behind her.

Cressy turned her head slightly to see a white four-wheel drive slow to a crawl. Her chest rose and fell with a sharp sigh. She should have known Edna Galloway would be in town. The queen bee of Woodlea’s social scene wouldn’t rest until she’d discovered whether or not Cressy had heard from Denham. Despite the thick soles of her emergency service–issued boots, she increased her pace. Her silver ute was still two blocks away parked near the museum. Head high, she ignored the prickling on the hairs of her nape as Edna followed slowly behind her. If she didn’t make it to her ute, she’d adopt her trademark Zen-smile and handle Edna’s inquisition like she had countless times before.

Even as she told herself to keep walking, an unexpected vulnerability had her swing into the closest open shop door. The sweet scent of blossoms greeted her as she entered the charity store. Sue volunteered today and the avid gardener had sat a vase of pink blooms beside the cash register.

‘Hi, Cressy,’ the older lady said from behind the counter, her blue eyes soft with welcome.

The tension churning in Cressy’s stomach ebbed. Sue had been the local librarian and had known Cressy ever since she’d flopped onto a beanbag in the children’s corner and read horse books until closing. Even now Cressy remained a frequent visitor to the old railway station that housed the local library.

‘Hey, Sue.’

Sue’s smile erased years from her lined face. ‘Long day?’

Cressy nodded. Sue’s question had nothing to do with Cressy’s SES call-out to rescue a man trapped down a well and everything to do with the cowboy who would soon arrive home. ‘You have no idea and it’s about to get longer.’

They turned as one to look through the large shop window to where Edna carefully reverse-parked her vehicle in front of the store.

‘Well, look at that.’ Sue checked her wristwatch. ‘I’m sure it’s four o’clock. Closing time.’

She bustled forward, flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED before locking the shop door. She then motioned for Cressy to follow her out the back of the narrow building.

Cressy joined her in the small room where donations were sorted. When an insistent tapping sounded on the front door, Sue smiled. ‘There’s something to be said for days when my hearing aid battery runs flat. That could be knocking but then again it might not be?’

‘Thanks, Sue, but I should let Edna in. I don’t want to get you in trouble. I know you have a church fundraising proposal to go before the board on Friday and Edna is the chairperson.’

Sue patted Cressy’s arm. ‘I can handle Edna Galloway. Ever since my scones won first place at last year’s show she’s been desperate to find out what my secret ingredient is.’ Sue winked. ‘I’m yet to tell her it’s lemonade.’

She reached for a basket of bright spring flowers that rested beside the tiny kitchenette sink. ‘Besides, I was hoping to catch you as you walked past.’ She handed Cressy the basket. ‘I know things are dry out your way and with dear Audrey’s funeral tomorrow, I thought you’d like some fresh flowers to take to the cemetery.’

Cressy leaned forward to kiss Sue’s soft cheek. She breathed in the familiar scent of Sue’s lavender perfume. Since Cressy had lost her parents in a car crash while she was at university, the widow’s care and concern had filled the vast and empty space within her. In the basket there were enough bouquets for several vases. Sue knew she regularly left flowers on her parents’ and grandparents’ graves.

‘Yes, I would. Thanks so much.’

A fresh tirade of knocking on the door was followed by a sudden silence.

Sue peered around the doorway. ‘Edna’s rushing across the road.’ Sue leaned out a little further. ‘Ah, good. She’s talking to Mrs Knox. That Harriet of hers is so fussy, there won’t be a wedding dress in Sydney fancy enough for her. You can slip out the back door while they discuss the latest dress disaster.’

But as Cressy turned to leave, Sue caught her hand.

‘Sweetheart, don’t be too hard on Denham. I know it was a long time ago now but he could have had more reasons for leaving for America than just to join the pro-rodeo circuit.’

Cressy fought to keep her expression from changing. Even to Sue she couldn’t reveal the depth of her hurt over Denham’s abandonment. It was only in the weak light of pre-dawn when the world hovered between darkness and hope that she could admit her pain even to herself. She had no doubt why the man she’d loved had left small town Woodlea … and her. They couldn’t compete with his bull-riding dreams.

She squeezed Sue’s hand. ‘Me? Hard on someone? Never.’

The older woman’s lips curved and eyes twinkled. ‘You might look like you’d blow away in a dust storm but you and I both know you take after your grandfather. That no-good Shaun deserved the dressing down you gave him at the picnic races. A flash suit and a charming smile doesn’t excuse him for sneaking off with a tipsy Bella, not when he went as your date.’ She paused, her eyes searching Cressy’s. ‘Some may say Shaun and Denham look similar but they’re very different men …’

Cressy frowned. ‘That’s ridiculous. They don’t look the same at all. Shaun’s much shorter.’ She gently freed her hand. ‘Don’t worry. Denham’s just lost his mother. If I do speak to him, I promise to go easy.’

Sue nodded and opened her mouth as if to talk again. But then she shook her head and opened the door for Cressy to walk through.

‘See you tomorrow, love.’

‘Will do.’

Making sure she kept out of sight of Main Street, Cressy crossed the neat park beside the museum to reach her ute. She slipped into the driver’s seat and placed the flower-filled basket beside her. Throat aching, she traced the delicate curve of a vivid daffodil. Her mother had loved seeing the cheerful bulbs push their way through the winter earth. Thank goodness she wasn’t here now to see how parched her beloved garden looked. The past years had been dry and the family farm’s water supply grew dangerously low. Glenmore just couldn’t catch any of the local storms.

Cressy rubbed at her right temple. The bad luck that had plagued them ever since her father had sold off the prime river flats without any explanation showed no sign of ending. The rich, alluvial flats and wide river formed the heart of the farm and without them Glenmore ceased to function. While the pastures on other properties grew thick and lush, the lifeless dirt in her paddocks scattered with only a breath of wind. She’d already culled her Black Angus breeding herd and couldn’t bear to part with any more cattle. Surely, she’d get rain soon?

Edna’s boisterous laughter drifted from Main Street. Through the side window Cressy could see her still talking to willowy Mrs Knox. Mrs Knox’s pedigree poodle now strained on the leash to touch noses with a scruffy black kelpie tied up outside the coffee shop.

Cressy started the ute engine. She had to keep moving before Edna saw her and before she dwelled too long on her thoughts. It was when she stopped to reflect that the strain of keeping Glenmore viable seeped through the cracks in the box in which she stashed her fears. She turned left at the yarn-bombed street sign where the metal pole was wrapped in knitted woollen stripes.

Guerrilla-knitting had reached Woodlea. The last item to be yarn-bombed by the knitters had been the post box outside the post office. Instead of being a glossy red, the post box now sported a blanket of colourful squares. Theories were rife about who the guerrillas were and she’d heard whispers about an underground knitting club. The bush telegraph had joined in the conjecture and tourists now visited to see and take photos of the mysterious woollen creations.

She left the town limits and turned onto the dirt road that led to the cemetery. She’d place flowers on her parents’ and grandparents’ graves and have a quiet moment; tomorrow the tiny cemetery would be teeming with people. She’d then head home to feed her animals. She only hoped Tippy hadn’t helped herself to the chook eggs again. The aged black kelpie was getting far too round.

Cressy changed gears. The simple action made her arm ache. She had a stress knot the size of a goose egg between her left shoulder and neck. By avoiding Edna and her curiosity, she’d only prolonged the inevitable. At Audrey’s funeral she’d not only face Edna but Denham. It had been inevitable she’d one day see him again. She’d just thought she’d be stronger and more prepared. It didn’t matter how much she told herself she wasn’t loving a man who didn’t love her in return, a part of her refused to listen. The invisible wound in her heart still bled like it had the day he’d driven away without once looking back.

She lifted her chin. But she’d since made a life for herself without Denham in it and that had to be enough for now. Between running the farm, her volunteer emergency services work and her community involvement, she had no time to wish for the things she could never have. By tomorrow she’d be ready to see him again. Her defences would be watertight. They’d also only need to hold for a short time. The cowboy who’d walked away from her once before would again soon be gone.

***

It felt like a lifetime since Denham Rigby had smelled eucalyptus.

He closed his eyes and drew in a slow and deep lungful of air. Beside him the leaves of a gum tree rustled as a spring breeze eddied around him and tugged at his hat brim. He caught the faint and acrid scent of cabbage. Near the historic Woodlea cemetery a pungent canola crop had to be in flower. He opened his eyes. Sure enough, beyond the hill on which he stood stretched an undulating landscape of canola-yellow.

He looked west to where his family farm, Claremont, lay. Phil, the farm manager, had taken advantage of the early rain and the paddocks were an ordered patchwork of colour. Denham’s attention shifted a little to the left. Here no winter crops rippled in the breeze. Instead, caught in a pocket drought, the land was bleached and colourless. It was as though Mother Nature had simply run out of inspiration. His jaw tightened. Cressy would have to watch her water. Their properties might be side-by-side but Claremont was the only farm to now enjoy any river frontage.

He rubbed the back of his neck beneath the collar of the blue western shirt he’d bought in some small Wyoming town he couldn’t remember the name of. All thoughts of Cressy and any concerns he might have about her unreliable water supply were off limits. Three years ago he’d lost the right to look out for her. All he could do now was not complicate the new life she’d made without him. Bitterness coursed through him. A life he had had to set her free to live.

He swung away from the graves of his father and brother. He’d come to the cemetery to make peace with the past, not to obsess about the things he couldn’t change. All he could do was keep on taking one day at a time. He might have made it as a world-champion bull rider but that didn’t spare him from being gossiped about or from being compared to his father. His hands fisted and he carefully relaxed them. He was nothing like the unemotional man who’d raised him.

He rolled his shoulders to force the tension locking his muscles to release. His emotions were as volatile as an electric storm and he needed to get them under control. Tomorrow all eyes would be on him and all tongues quick to comment. He strode towards his ute, and heard tyres crunch on gravel. He glanced at the cemetery entrance … and froze.

Mouth dry, he stared at the battered ute that rattled across the cattle grid flanked by two white picket fences. He knew every dent and every panel scratch. Just like he knew every micro-expression of the driver whose attention remained focused on the dirt road.

Cressy.

He forced air into his lungs. He’d been counting on seeing her tomorrow when surrounded by a sea of people. Not here and now when alone and where he’d be vulnerable to both her questions and her hurt.

She saw him. The ute’s gears grated before the vehicle came to an abrupt stop. For a beat she sat in the driver’s seat frowning through the passenger side window. Then she unclipped her belt and opened the car door.

He set his jaw and allowed his emotions to drain away like rain through fine-grained sand. Life on the rodeo circuit had taught him that to survive he couldn’t feel. He couldn’t allow the 2000 pounds of badass bull beneath him to sense his tension. Just like he couldn’t let the woman who approached know how fast his heart raced. He walked forward.

Cressy halted a body-length away, arms by her side. Her shapeless orange SES uniform couldn’t disguise the neat curves below that were a perfect fit for his hands. A cap hid her fine-boned features but not the uncompromising line of her mouth. Her thick brown hair hung over her shoulder in a careless braid. Would her hair still smell like orange blossoms?

A loss, so deep and so potent, hit him like a physical blow. He planted his boots on the ground to stop his knees from buckling.

Her chin tilted and she touched her cap brim to push it higher so her steady hazel gaze could meet his. Silence settled around them, suffocating and uncomfortable.

He owed it to her to speak first. Even if his voice would emerge as unused and as rusty as the broken windmill in the paddock beside them.

‘Hi, Cressy.’

Her eyes widened at the unfamiliar American inflections in his voice.

‘Denham.’

He swallowed. Her greeting was as cold as the early-winter snow that capped the rugged Rocky Mountains he’d left behind.

Her arms folded but her mouth softened a fraction. ‘I’m sorry about Audrey.’

‘Thanks.’

He kept his reply short but even then emotion deepened his voice. So much for not feeling. When he was around Cressy he still felt too damn much.

He gave in to the urge to look at her left hand. The Woodlea rumours had been rife with talk of a serious boyfriend and his mother had confirmed she’d been seeing a newcomer named Shaun. She didn’t wear a ring but she wouldn’t when carrying out her SES volunteer work.

He met her eyes again and had no idea what she was thinking. Loss again buffeted him. He’d always been able to read her. Not anymore. The girl who’d worn her heart on her sleeve had learned to mask her emotions. Guilt twisted inside like a knife.

‘Do you need anything?’

Her polite question failed to span the divide that gaped between them. Cressy’s generosity always ensured that she looked out for others, even the man who’d left her to follow his so-called dreams.

He cleared his throat. ‘No, I’m right, thanks. Meredith’s coming out to Claremont so I won’t be on my own.’

A wash of faint colour over Cressy’s fair skin hinted at her relief he wasn’t in need of anything. ‘Knowing Meredith, she’ll arrive with a boot full of groceries and baking so you’ll definitely be right for food.’ Cressy glanced over his shoulder at the two graves he’d been visiting. ‘I’ll leave you in peace.’

‘No worries.’

She unfolded her arms and turned.

He should let her go. He shouldn’t try and rewind the past. But the need to hear her voice and to be near her proved too much. Every day he’d spent away was carved on his heart like notches on a blackened fencepost.

‘Cressy …’

She stiffened and slowly turned to face him.

‘How’s Felicity?’

‘She’s good, thanks. She’s finished medicine and she’s working in a Sydney hospital.’

He nodded. ‘I can imagine her in a large city hospital. Fliss always liked being in charge.’

A ghost of a smile touched Cressy’s mouth. ‘She still does. She’s a typical firstborn and is in her element overseas having a holiday and helping a uni friend organise her wedding.’

‘I bet she is.’ He paused. ‘Mum said Glenmore’s keeping you busy.’

The small talk didn’t appear to relax Cressy. Her rigid body remained angled towards her ute as though preparing for a fast getaway. ‘It has.’

‘I really appreciate the time you spent with her.’

‘It was the least I could do. She was so … alone.’

He flinched. He didn’t know what lashed him the most, Cressy’s harsh tone or the condemnation in her eyes.

‘No. She wasn’t.’

Cressy’s frown would have stopped a runaway racehorse. ‘Yes, she was. Her only surviving son wasn’t here for her.’

‘I was.’

‘Denham, cut the rubbish. I know you weren’t. You’ve been on the other side of the world.’

‘Not all the time.’

‘What do you mean? You haven’t set foot on Claremont in three years.’

He scrubbed a hand over his face. He hadn’t ever intended to reveal so much but Cressy’s censure corroded his self-control. His mother also hadn’t raised him to lie.

‘Yes. I have.’

Silence.

He continued speaking, throat tight. Cressy wasn’t going to like what he had to say. ‘I’ve been home and the last time was … a fortnight ago.’

Shock pinched her features. ‘You’ve been home? You’ve been with Audrey?’

‘Yes. I was holding her hand until the … end.’

He didn’t try to hide the emotion that rasped in his words.

Cressy stared at him. Grief shimmered in her eyes and she was again the kind-hearted girl he’d known. Whenever there had been a poddy lamb or an orphaned joey he’d deliver them to Cressy to be cared for.

‘I’m glad Audrey had you with her. No-one realised she was sick again, otherwise we all would have been over.’ Confusion replaced the softness in Cressy’s gaze. ‘But how did you come and go without anyone seeing you? And why didn’t Audrey, or Phil, say anything?’

‘I asked them not to.’ His tone remained low. ‘It’s not hard to hire a car and come the back way from Dubbo to Claremont.’

‘We were … friends. I wouldn’t have told anyone.’

‘I know.’ He took a step towards her before his mind could warn him it was a bad idea. ‘It was … easier this way.’

‘Easier?’

The single word contained all the spirit and the strength that had always defined who Cressy was. She was far more than fragile bones and large eyes.

‘Yes. I could never stay long. I was here to see Mum and to spend as much time with her as I could.’

Cressy nodded. She’d always known how close he was to his mother. Just like she’d also remember how he’d ended things between them. He’d made it clear there was no future for them and that he didn’t want her to wait.

‘Cressy, I’ve said it before but … I’m really sorry the way things turned out … between us.’

She shrugged, her face devoid of all expression. ‘There’s no need to apologise. You’ve already said enough. I get it … you left because you had things to do that you couldn’t do here.’

‘Cressy …’ He pressed his lips together to stop his secrets from breaking free. He’d made a deathbed promise to his mother to let the past go and to move forward. He nodded. ‘Thanks again for being there for Mum. See you tomorrow.’

‘No worries.’ She’d turned away before she’d even finished speaking.

He dug his hands deep in his jeans pockets. No matter how much he wanted to, he could no more call her back or say how good it was to see her than he could take her into his arms.

Without a backwards glance she slipped into the driver’s seat, started the ute engine and continued into the cemetery.

Denham bowed his head and made his way to his own ute. It wasn’t only his brave and gentle mother he’d come home to farewell. It was time to let the flicker of hope that he and Cressy could have a future together burn out. It was time to let both his dreams … and her … go. There could be no going back.

He made a point of not looking at his father’s or brother’s graves. The years away hadn’t achieved a thing. The pain hadn’t dulled. The guilt hadn’t diffused. His feelings for Cressy hadn’t dimmed.

He still had to let the one girl he could never forget walk away.

Chapter Two

‘Tippy, not you too?’

Cressy sighed and glanced across at the kelpie who sat in the ute passenger seat, her intense, whiskey-coloured gaze fixed forward. When it came to working cattle the intuitive kelpie was one of the best, but this time she wasn’t obsessing over a flighty steer … just one broad-shouldered cowboy.

To their right sprawled the historic Claremont homestead and to their left Denham stood, back to them, watching a horse in the round yard near the stables. The moving horse kicked up a cloud of dust but Cressy didn’t focus on the rising red plume. She too stared at Denham. She’d last seen him four days ago at Audrey’s funeral. Face grave and jaw tight, he’d cut a sombre figure in a dark suit and boots. Today he wore a wide-brimmed hat, faded jeans and green western shirt but the rigid line of his back told her his expression hadn’t changed.

She looked away with a frown and parked in her usual place beneath the spreading jacaranda tree. She was as bad as Tippy and the rest of Woodlea’s female population who’d crowded around Denham after the church service. Sure he looked as good in dust and denim as a cowboy could but that was no excuse for forgetting their lives now ran along separate tracks. Her fingers curled around the steering wheel. Even if her hands still remembered the feel of the corded muscles beneath his smooth skin.

‘Tippy, we’re here to help Meredith finish cleaning Audrey’s flat. Not to mob him.’ Cressy cast the black kelpie a stern look. ‘I know you snuck off yesterday to find him. He’s just lost his mum. He needs space.’

Tippy wagged her tail but her eyes never left the cowboy who’d turned to look at them. Cressy gave Denham a casual wave and then bent to collect the bucket of cleaning supplies from off the ute floor.

This was day three of helping Meredith and would be her last visit to Claremont. Apart from a quiet word with Denham at the wake and an unexpected meeting of their gazes, she hadn’t seen him since. She mightn’t see him again after today. Meredith hadn’t let on when Denham would be leaving but it had to be soon.

Cressy straightened and ignored the ache in her chest. She had no time to indulge her emotions or to cling to sentiment. Denham had made his choice and it hadn’t been her. She climbed out of the driver’s seat and Tippy shot past her. Cressy looked skywards. So much for the besotted kelpie not mobbing Denham.

She hesitated and glanced across to where Denham’s smile flashed white as he rubbed behind Tippy’s ears. Cressy shouldn’t join them. She’d acknowledged Denham with a wave and that was enough. He wouldn’t expect anything more. He’d known she’d visited the past three days but hadn’t sought her out. She’d whistle the kelpie away and continue inside. But her lips refused to move.

People looked out for each other in the bush and she owed it to Audrey to keep an eye on her son. A shooting accident had stolen his father, a car accident his younger brother Jake and now cancer had returned to claim his mother. She settled her black Woodlea rodeo cap a little more firmly on her head. She also couldn’t turn her back on the years of friendship with the older boy who’d always saved a slow smile for her. She’d check Denham was doing all right and then leave him in peace.

She kept her attention on him until a body-length away and then looked down at Tippy. The twist in her stomach let her know she wasn’t ready for the jolt of his blue eyes meeting hers. Even after three years he still affected her like no other man could.

‘Hey,’ she said, risking a quick look at his face.

‘Hey.’

The deep timbre of his reply triggered a flurry in her senses. The unfamiliar American cadence to his voice gave his tone a new huskiness. She tightened her grip on the bucket handle and moved closer to the fence. Forget about the tight stretch of worn denim over his well-honed muscles, Denham only had to open his mouth and he was every cowgirl’s dream.

‘I see Bandit hasn’t changed.’ She sat the bucket on the ground and rested her arms on the round yard fence. ‘He’s as bad tempered as he was when you bought him off the rodeo circuit. There’s a reason why he was a champion buck jumper.’

Denham’s quiet chuckle washed over her as he too moved closer to the fence. Tippy sat close beside him, swooning at his feet. For a second she thought Denham glanced at her ring finger before he too rested his arms on the rails. The fresh scent of soap and sun-dried cotton drifted to her on the warm breeze.

‘Bandit’s all bluff and no bite,’ Denham said as the buckskin humped his back and bucked. Sweat darkened the gelding’s flanks and his nostrils flared as he thundered around the circular yard. ‘He’s just letting me know he doesn’t appreciate having his morning siesta interrupted.’

‘You can say that again.’

Cressy watched the gelding’s golden coat ripple before his hindquarters bunched and he kicked out as he sped past. Bandit could turn in a heartbeat and his mood change even faster. The only rider he’d ever allow to stay in the saddle was Denham.

‘He’s almost done,’ Denham said as Bandit slid to a stop, tossed his head and gave a piercing whinny. The chestnut mare who dozed beneath the cedar tree outside the stables flicked a placid ear.

Bandit pawed the ground and then, head held high, cantered over to Denham to nudge his hands. As if he had all the time in the world, Denham ran his palm over Bandit’s forehead. Even though she’d witnessed Denham’s magic before, Cressy stood still and watched as Bandit’s breathing quietened and his head lowered.

Her gaze travelled from the buckskin to the cowboy whose unhurried touch could soothe an agitated horse. Heat filled her cheeks. And whose tender touch could make a no-frills cowgirl feel special and beautiful.

She wasn’t prepared when Denham turned his head. His blue gaze caught hers. She blinked but refused to look away. It was too late to mask her memories or to hide her vulnerability. A muscle worked in his tight jaw. Then Denham broke eye contact to talk softly to the gelding as he pawed the sand.

Cressy lowered her hands from the round yard-rail but didn’t step away. Now would be a sensible time to head inside but while she might be a fool for not being over Denham she wasn’t a coward. She needed to make sure he was okay.

‘Denham … how are you doing?’

He shot her a sideways glance.

‘I’m fine.’ The grooves bracketing his mouth deepened. ‘After I get Bandit’s feet trimmed I’ll be even better. Phil’s been driving me around the farm and it’s time to saddle up and feel the wind on my face.’

‘Sounds like a good plan.’ Even as a boy Denham had disliked confined spaces and had needed to move to release his restlessness. ‘I know you’ll be leaving soon but if you need to … talk … or anything you know where I am.’

‘Thanks.’

His one-word reply emerged low and quiet.

The door of the homestead opened and a tall, elegant woman dressed in jeans and a vivid orange shirt stepped out with a broom in her hand. She caught sight of them and lifted a hand in greeting.

Cressy waved before touching Tippy’s head. ‘Tippy and I’d better head inside before Meredith leaves us nothing to do. She’s probably been up for hours.’

A brief smile shaped Denham’s mouth. ‘She has, she’s been baking. There’s already a tin of Anzac biscuits ready for my morning smoko.’

Cressy matched Denham’s smile. ‘Well, make sure you eat plenty because there’s a reason why your aunt always runs the church fair with an army of volunteers—she never takes no for an answer.’

For a moment Cressy thought a real smile would crinkle the corners of Denham’s eyes but the warmth in his gaze ebbed and she glimpsed the rawness of his grief. His mother used to also help organise the annual fair. ‘I’ll make sure I eat plenty.’

Cressy slid her hands into her jeans pockets to stop herself from curling her fingers around his tanned forearm left bare by his rolled-up shirtsleeves. The days of her offering him comfort were long gone. All she could be now was a concerned neighbour.

‘Great. I’ll leave you to work with Bandit.’ She picked up her bucket. ‘Enjoy your ride.’

‘Will do.’

With Tippy at her heels, Cressy left the red dust of the horse yard and followed the path through the swathe of green lawn to where Meredith swept the front steps. The older woman sneezed as Cressy approached.

‘As much as I love spring …’ Meredith sneezed again and looked towards a garden trellis covered in fragrant white jasmine. ‘I don’t love hayfever. That’s my sweeping done for the day.’

‘That’s my excuse even when it isn’t hayfever season. I’d rather be out in the paddocks any day than inside cleaning.’

A smile showcased Meredith’s high cheekbones. Despite the lines and hollows etched by the years, Meredith retained the beauty that had once seen her crowned Miss Woodlea Showgirl.

‘Your mother was the same but it was her garden that she’d loved to spend time in.’

‘She sure did.’ Cressy climbed the veranda steps to link her arm with Meredith’s. Sadness had threaded the older woman’s words. Meredith, Cressy’s mother and Audrey had all enjoyed a close and special friendship. Now Meredith was the only woman left.

Together they entered the cool of the homestead. Large rooms radiated off the wide hallway in which dust sheets covered dark-legged furniture. Gilded-framed landscapes hung on walls that stretched to meet pressed metal ceilings. Once a grand and stately home, Claremont now resembled a museum. Audrey had moved into the small but cosy granny flat within a side wing of the house. Here she had a view of the undulating hills that she loved. She was also cocooned from the memories of a home that had once echoed with the footsteps of a husband and a son who were no longer with her.

Meredith opened the door to the granny flat and the sweet smell of fresh baking greeted them. The hum of the oven sounded and through the glass Cressy could see the dark contour of a chocolate cake. Denham had better be hungry as he’d soon have more than Anzac biscuits for morning smoko.

Cressy’s attention lingered on Meredith as she reached for a floral oven mitt on the bench. Why Meredith never married or had a family of her own to bake for remained a mystery. All Cressy’s mother ever said was that as an only daughter, Meredith had led a sheltered life. From the sorrow Cressy glimpsed when Meredith thought no-one was looking, Cressy guessed there’d been more to the story.

Meredith smiled and slipped on the oven mitt. ‘I’ll take out Denham’s cake, put a quiche on for lunch and then come and help with Audrey’s books.’

‘Sounds good. I’ll get started on the big bookshelf.’

Cressy made her way through the flat to a small alcove in which a padded green wingchair faced an oversized window. This room was the last to be cleaned and sorted. Throat aching, Cressy smoothed the plush velvet on the back of the chair. Audrey had arrived a city girl but would have spent her last days with her cowboy son by her side and looking over her favourite rural view.

Dust smudged the sky and Cressy moved a little to her left to see where Denham was working Bandit. He now stood in the centre of the round yard and the gelding cantered around him in an even and controlled circle. Denham was right. The gelding had soon settled.

The ache in her throat intensified. She’d spent hours sitting on a hay bale watching as Denham worked with a stubborn Bandit in the yard to earn his trust. She swung away from the window to grab the closest pile of books from off the largest bookshelf. Enough was enough. She couldn’t just appear to be over Denham. She had to be over him for real. It was time to fit the pieces of her heart back together.

Bandit might be a one-man horse but she wasn’t going to waste any more time being a one-man woman. She set the books she held on the floor and reached for a second pile. Especially when that man didn’t love her.

***

‘Relax, Bandit. It’s only a magpie,’ Denham said as the gelding shied at a loud flapping noise in a nearby gum tree.

When the buckskin again moved around the edge of the small arena in an easy canter, Denham glanced at the black and white bird peering down at them. It would soon be magpie nesting season and male magpies would swoop anyone who threatened their nest. It was no wonder the local cyclists rode the country roads with flexible zip ties protruding above their helmets like black spires. A blow from a magpie’s beak could draw blood.

Bandit cantered another calm circle and Denham lowered the arm he’d used to signal that he continue. The gelding approached in a walk and Denham rubbed his forehead. The buckskin nickered softly.

‘Yeah, mate. I know. It’s been too long. I missed you too.’

He led the way out of the round yard and over to the hitching rail outside the stables. The chestnut mare left the tree shade to stand beside Bandit as if she too would soon have her feet trimmed.

Denham patted her warm copper neck. Flame had been a rescue horse from a city-born hobby farmer who’d bought her for his children not knowing anything about horses. She’d arrived at Claremont emaciated, her coat dull and her nerves on edge. Sweet and eager to please she’d quickly won a place in his and Audrey’s hearts and Claremont had become her forever home.

‘Your hooves are just fine, Flame. It’s only Bandit who needs his seen to and he wouldn’t if he behaved for Frank.’

Denham headed to the tack room to collect his farrier tools. When he returned Flame remained in front of the hitching post. Even when Bandit fussed and jostled her while Denham trimmed his hooves, Flame refused to move.

Denham passed the rasp over Bandit’s back foot for a final time and straightened to rub at the left side of his ribs. His last bull ride hadn’t ended so well. He rolled his tight shoulder to ease the ache of an older injury that also reminded him of the toll bull riding had taken on his body. He might have lasted eight seconds on Widowmaker but the infamous rodeo bull had made him work hard for his victory. The previous two rides he’d ended up in hospital with a concussion and a fractured shoulder.

Denham attached the rasp to the magnet on the hoof stand. With Bandit’s feet done, he’d saddle the buckskin and head to the river flats to check the oats crop. A flash of pink in the bay window of his mother’s flat caught his eye and he stilled.

He stared while Cressy placed a pile of books in a box and then he picked up the hoof stand and strode towards the tack room.

The day they buried his mother, he’d felt Cressy’s unreadable gaze on him. She’d only spoken to him once when she offered him her condolences. She’d then handed him a coffee and plate of food before slipping into the crowd. He couldn’t allow himself to read anything into her actions or the emotions that had darkened her eyes earlier when she’d stared at him. He’d hurt her by leaving and then again by not visiting her when home. As much as he wished he could return to a time when the adult world hadn’t come between them, he couldn’t. The only thing he could do now was to keep his distance and to not cause her fresh pain.

He swapped the hoof stand for Bandit’s saddle and bridle. He’d need more than a ride to crush the grief roiling inside him. But heading into town for a few quiet beers at the Royal Arms wasn’t an option. He was supposed to be keeping a low profile and staying under the gossip radar. Between his father’s brusque manner and his brother’s love for a beer, the Rigbys had brokered enough attention. The less talk and conjecture there was about him and his family the better. He couldn’t have anyone probing beneath the surface of their supposedly perfect lives. Small towns could have long memories, especially when it came to one of their oldest families.

Leather creaked as he settled Bandit’s saddle on the hitching rail. Flame stepped forward to sniff the coffee-brown saddle flap.

‘Flame, I’m sorry, I know you want to come too.’ Denham placed his palm on her rump. ‘It’s just me and Bandit heading out today.’

The mare turned to stare at him with big brown eyes. Perceptive Flame would sense something was wrong and would need reassurance that everything was okay. The usual routine over the past three years had been for Audrey to ride her while he rode Bandit. He couldn’t leave her behind now. From the corner of his eye, Cressy’s pink shirt again flashed in the bay window.

‘Okay, Flame. You can come. I’ll rustle up a rider for you.’

Instead of following the main garden path to the homestead, Denham headed towards the back of the house. After five years, he still avoided the front entrance. He was yet to pass his father’s empty office without his chest tightening.

Denham took hold of the doorhandle to his mother’s small flat but didn’t slide the glass open. Cressy sat on the floor on the living room, legs crossed with books and boxes surrounding her. Engrossed in the open novel on her lap she didn’t look up even when he eased the door ajar.

She’d removed her Woodlea rodeo cap and the end of her long ponytail fell over her shoulder. Against the bright pink of her shirt her hair shone a rich and glossy brown. Lost in another world, her mouth tilted at the corners, her full lips a natural shade of pink. His hand tightened on the doorhandle. He’d bet a case of cold beer her lips still tasted as sweet as they looked.

He transferred his weight onto his boot heels, ready to turn. He was asking for trouble spending more than five minutes with her. He squared his shoulders and slid open the door. But he couldn’t let Flame down. The gentle and loyal mare needed to be ridden.

Cressy’s head lifted as he stepped into the flat. Just like on the day at the cemetery, it was as though he were looking at a stranger. Her face was a careful mask, devoid of the emotion he’d earlier glimpsed in her eyes.

‘You’re in for smoko early,’ she said, voice casual. ‘Is Bandit still unimpressed you interrupted his siesta?’

Denham took off his hat and forced himself to relax. Riding a paddock-fresh and cantankerous Bandit was suddenly the least of his worries. If he was going to survive being alone with Cressy for the next hour he needed to dig deep. She couldn’t know how much it affected him being near her.

‘No, I haven’t bitten the dust yet but that’s not to say it won’t happen when I do get on him.’

To his relief his tone contained just the right amount of humour but also reserve.

Meredith appeared in the kitchen doorway, a yellow-checked tea towel in her hands. Her quick smile relaxed the firm grip he held on his hat. Meredith wasn’t only his aunt, she’d been his mother’s best friend and had always been a part of his life.

‘Perfect timing. I just iced a chocolate cake.’ Meredith turned to smile at Cressy. ‘Cuppa, love?’

‘No thanks.’ Cressy closed the novel on her lap and placed it in the closest box. ‘I seem to be doing more reading than cleaning so had better get busy.’

Denham didn’t miss the quick glance she threw at him. He wasn’t the only one whose instincts warned to keep their distance.

To his surprise his aunt merely nodded. ‘Okay then. Denham, it’s just you, me and the chocolate cake.’

As she disappeared into the kitchen, he didn’t follow. Cressy stood and brushed off the seat of her jeans. Her eyes avoided his until he softly spoke her name.

‘Cressy … fancy a ride to the river to check the oats crop? Flame senses Mum’s gone and doesn’t want to be left behind.’

Compassion softened Cressy’s gaze. She spoke without hesitation. ‘Poor possum. I thought she’d know something wasn’t right. Yes, Tippy and I would love to come.’

‘You’ll need a cuppa before you go,’ Meredith called from the kitchen. ‘And some chocolate cake.’

Amusement briefly illuminated the green flecks in Cressy’s eyes. ‘Now Meredith, how did I know you’d say that?’

***

A coffee, an Anzac biscuit and two slices of cake later, Denham swung into Bandit’s saddle. The gelding was cold-backed and would need to take a few steps to adjust to his weight. He let him walk forward several paces before stopping him to gauge his mood. The buckskin pawed the ground but soon calmed. When he was sure Bandit was listening and wasn’t plotting to unseat him, he nudged the gelding forward. Cressy and Flame had already left the stable yard and were making their way past the back garden. Tippy trailed behind, head down as she tracked a rabbit or a kangaroo.

Bandit fell into step beside Flame and then pulled ahead.

Cressy waved at a fly hovering near her ear. ‘Some things never change. Bandit still has to be first.’

‘He does. But that also means he gets to open all the gates for Flame.’

‘So he should, shouldn’t he?’ Cressy patted the mare’s neck. ‘It’s about time Bandit behaved like a gentleman.’

She paused to look over to where remnants of early-morning fog hovered in the valley above the trees that marked the meandering course of the river. The tense line of her shoulders lowered. ‘Thanks for asking that Tippy and I tag along. It’s a beautiful day and it’s been a long time since I’ve been for a ride.’

‘You’re welcome.’ He loosened his reins and Bandit surged into a canter. ‘Let’s see if we can find a gate for Bandit to practise his manners on.’

The pound of the horses’ hooves on the dark alluvial flat startled a flock of yellow-crested cockatoos. The birds left the branches of the ancient river red gums and soared upwards. As they screeched and passed through the patches of low cloud, their wings flashed silver.

Denham released a silent breath. The wad of tension that had wedged behind his ribs dissipated. Cressy was right. It was a beautiful spring day. His mother might be gone but she’d want him to savour every second.

He slowed Bandit as they came to a gate. With Bandit’s begrudging cooperation he manoeuvred it open and waited for Flame, Tippy and Cressy to pass through.

Cressy grinned as the gelding pranced, impatient to again be ahead of the chestnut. ‘Has anyone told you, Bandit, that patience is a virtue?’

Denham assessed Cressy’s profile. A smile continued to curve her lips and he saw shades of the carefree girl he’d grown up with. The ride wasn’t only doing Flame good. He glanced over to his far left where Claremont ended and Glenmore started. The landscape transitioned from a lush green to a distant brown blur. The strain of Cressy keeping her family property running on her own had to be taking a toll.

Discipline and a committed work ethic had characterised all of the Knight men, with the exception of Cressy’s father. He hadn’t been as hands-on or as invested as his forefathers and the farm had suffered. Fliss too had never been really interested in farm life, so even as a child Cressy had known the future of Glenmore would be in her hands. A duty she’d always taken seriously.

The horses climbed a nearby foothill. Denham and Cressy stopped to stare across the river flats that rippled like a green sea as a breeze played tag in the oats crop.

‘I haven’t seen a crop like this for years,’ Cressy said, tone hushed. ‘You can barely see the cattle.’

‘Cressy …’ Denham considered her now shadowed expression. The fertile river flats had once been part of Glenmore. Whatever his father had done to talk her father into selling them had died along with the two men. ‘There’s enough oats here for both Claremont’s and Glenmore’s cattle. You’re welcome to push your cattle through the boundary gate and leave them here for as long as you need to.’

The proud stiffening of her spine answered him before her words could. Cressy’s need for independence hadn’t diminished over the years. Her feed situation grew desperate but she wouldn’t accept help. Her grandfather hadn’t raised her to be weak or needy.

‘Thanks but you’ll need all of your oats as Phil bought a truckload of cattle from the last store sale. I’m also doing okay. Phil’s delivering some more hay in a couple of days and when that runs out I’ve got a permit to take the cattle out onto the travelling stock routes. It has to rain … sometime.’

Denham nodded. He knew better than to try and talk Cressy around. She had a will as stubborn and as strong as the rogue bull she’d raised from a poddy calf and still considered a pet.

‘There’s no time limit on the offer. If you come back from the long paddock and still need feed, the gate will be unlocked.’

She nodded. ‘Thanks.’

Denham looked across to where the fog had now lifted and the sky above the river was a clear and pristine blue. ‘We’ve checked the crop so had better head back. I’ve a man coming to see me about some yards soon.’

A frown indented Cressy’s smooth brow. ‘Yards? Phil’s only just redesigned and added some extra panels to the cattle yards … Didn’t his changes work?’

Denham took a second to answer. ‘They did, they worked well … These new yards aren’t exactly cattle yards.’

Cressy searched his face and he kept his expression casual. He might have known she’d detect the caution in his voice. Her busy brain put two and two together faster than Tippy could sprint after a wallaby.

‘So what type of yards are they?’

He held her gaze. His heart drummed in his chest so loud she had to be able to hear it. From the widening of her eyes he suspected she’d already guessed what he was about to say.

‘They’re yards with chutes … for training rodeo bulls. Cressy … I’m home … for good.’


We hope you enjoyed this sample of The Long Paddock by Alissa Callen! 

Available in print and e-book from January 23, 2017.

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