It was spring but outside the wind was vicious at Admella Beach. It bit and cut, carved lines in the dunes, and created seaweed, sponge and cuttlebone tumbleweeds. Jasmine Thomas’s timber house groaned against the onslaught, while the fire in the lounge danced and cast strange shadows. A she-devil’s fire.
An appropriate fire.
Jas fingered the note again, the second poison-pen missive she’d received this past month. Her eyes scanned the text one last time, then she screwed the note into a ball and threw it onto the flames. They fed, nibbles at first, then flared bright and devouring until the note was no more.
She hugged her arms to her chest and watched the coals glow. It had to be a local. The notes were hand-delivered, and by someone familiar with her routine. The weather was fickle in the south, the front door of her ageing weatherboard cottage unprotected. If the letters had been left early in the day there was too much risk of them getting blown away or soaked with rain. Both notes had been dry, not a hint of dampness, tucked under Jasmine’s welcoming doormat but poking out far enough to be unmissable.
How ironic that after almost four years of heartbreak and self-reproach, of secrecy and furtiveness, of Mike’s toxic version of love, the moment she’d freed herself someone had discovered her secret. And taken it upon their outraged selves to act upon it.
Jas supposed it could be worse. She could wake to slashed tyres, arrive home to broken windows. Have people cross the street to avoid her. But there’d been none of that. The tiny fishing village of Port Andrews had carried on as normal. Locals called hello. Elaine at the fish and chip shop still grinned and gossiped. Fishermen and beachcombers waved when Jasmine cantered her darling grey show horse Ox along Admella Beach, the sweeping bay beyond her back doorstep. Work at the building society in Levenham—a 26-kilometre commute north—bumbled along, the staff the same as usual, customers unchanged. Her secret had seemed safe.
She should have known such a thing could never be safe.
Jas sighed and kneeled to poke at the fire, readying it for another log. Sleep would be hard to come by tonight. Again. She thought life would become easier with the burden of their affair lifted, but she still ached for Mike. He was an arsehole but in the times when she wasn’t hating herself he’d made her feel amazing. Amazing, alive and truly loved.
No doubt his wife Tania had once felt the same. Perhaps she still did. Jas hoped so. Destroying her own heart was one thing, destroying an innocent woman’s—a woman with a family—was something else.
Jas rose and wandered into the kitchen. Though it was almost dark, the window pulled like a magnet, latching on to something inside her. Uncertainty about what lay outside. Fear that someone could be secretly watching. She loathed that feeling. This was her home. She’d worked hard for it. No one had the right to make her feel wrong inside its walls. Yet with two letters they had.
Jas looked anyway. The last of the sun was dissolving in a puddle of apricot and indigo. Her crushed limestone drive, now grey with wear and wind erosion, snaked faintly towards the road. The gate stood open, jammed into place with grass that had long tangled and clumped itself around the rails. After the first letter she’d considered closing the gate but dismissed the idea as ridiculous paranoia. Now the urge to sprint out into the howling dusk and force it shut was huge.
She folded her arms again as her throat began to thicken and ache, and tears prickled. It took several minutes to breathe the tears away. Jasmine’s nature had always been positive and fun. She had bounced through life as springy as the dark curls that surrounded her face. Misery had never been her way. She certainly wasn’t going to give in to it now, no matter how much her heart bled, or how sorry for herself she felt.
And she sure as hell wouldn’t give in to some vicious poison-pen sneak.
Jas straightened her shoulders, flipped the bird at the window and the world outside, and without a backward glance, set about preparing dinner.
She was on the couch in front of the telly, half dozing off a belly full of pasta, when the knock came. At first she thought it was another of the house’s ceaseless creaks and bangs. The wind was still up, a frigid southerly gusting at near gale strength. Jas had long acclimatised herself to the noise. In the winter when storms raked the coast, the timbers protested like arthritic old women, groaning and moaning and startling her with an occasional shudder. The sea, only a dune away, added a background roar.
The knock came again: a sharp, urgent rap that shot a bullet of fear down her spine and made her sit upright.
Jasmine’s two-bedroom house was situated half a kilometre from the edge of Port Andrews, set back off the road on a narrow five-acre block. It was small, perhaps unappealing to some, but Jas was single and it suited her needs, and she had come to appreciate its cosy intimacy. But not now. Now her beloved house seemed too isolated, the walls too weak. The outside too close.
Swallowing, nerves ratcheted up, Jas crept towards the window edge and lifted a tiny sliver of curtain. A dark figure stood near the front doormat. A man with his hands dug into his pockets and his shoulders hunched against the cold. No car stood in the drive but she wasn’t surprised. Mike knew better than to leave his distinctive vehicle in view. He had more to lose from discovery than she did, after all.
Jas let the curtain fall back and rested her hand against the ache in her chest, contemplating whether to answer or not. A week ago he’d turned up drunk and crying, promising a world he would never give. Terrified at the thought of him driving, she’d let him stay. It had been a mistake, one she’d vowed never to make again.
His urgent knock became a pound, followed by a yell of her name.
‘Come on, Jas. Let me in.’
She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. He didn’t sound drunk this time, but that needling Antarctic wind would sober anyone in a hurry. And her traitorous heart was filling with longing and loneliness.
She scrubbed her palm up and down her forehead, wracked with indecision. This had to end. She had to make a break for her own sanity and for the sake of his marriage.
The hammering stopped. She dropped her hand and held her breath, waiting for the sound of a car door, for the rumble of an engine, anything to signal he was leaving, but it was hard to isolate specific sounds against the whistle of the wind and groans of the timber. Breathing hard, she snatched up the television remote and poked the Off button but it was still difficult to make out what was nature and what could be Mike.
Jas stood in the centre of the room with her hands together and licked her lips. Still no engine noise. Perhaps he’d parked further away and walked? He’d done it before, in the summer, when the days were lazy and long and there was more chance of his car being spotted. The council had carved several parking bays for surfers along the coast but an unauthorised one, created by locals and screened with boobialla, lay closer to her house and ran from the road to Admella Beach along the eastern edge of Ox’s paddock.
She waited a few seconds more before crossing back to the window. With her back to the wall and her head turned sideways, she slowly fingered back another edge of curtain.
A palm slapped against the window. Jas shrieked and stumbled backwards into the lamp table. She went down, right hip and elbow banging the wooden floor painfully.
‘Jas, let me in. I’m not drunk, I promise.’
Eyes smarting against the pain, Jas rolled onto her bum and rubbed at her bruises. ‘Go away!’ Then softer, ‘Just leave me alone.’
‘Jas, I love you. I’ll find a way for us.’
But pain had hardened Jasmine’s heart. They were just words. Words he’d said many times. More lies in a life that was already bloated with them.
Jas gave her hip a last rub and using the edge of the sofa, eased gingerly to her feet. She stared at the prostrate table. The lamp was between its legs, the belly of its handpainted china base cracked apart, fittings and wires rudely exposed. She’d found it at a second-hand shop and paid little for it, but that wasn’t the point. Matched with a bright new shade, the lamp had added colour as well as light to the room. Jas adored it. That someone as unworthy as Mike had caused its destruction made her jaw tighten.
Limping, she set about tidying the mess, not caring what Mike did. He could freeze outside for all she cared.
Jas was conveying the broken lamp parts to the fluorescent brightness of the kitchen when she heard a different kind of noise, one that made her hackles rise.
‘Oh, no you don’t.’ She spilled the lamp remains onto the bench and sprinted back down the hall.
But she was too late. With a final rattle, the back door swung open and smacked against the wall as a blast of ice and sea-tainted air snatched it out of Mike’s hands.
She dived for it, bellowing as she did, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’
His palms were up—the pleading, reasonable man. ‘Jas.’
‘No.’ She shouldered all her weight against the door and pushed. The wind gave a muscular gust, but momentum and grit created enough force to jam his foot hard.
He yelled but didn’t remove it. ‘Jesus, Jas. Steady on.’
She kept pushing, fury at the invasion driving her. This was her house, her sanctuary. He didn’t belong here. He never had, and never would.
‘What are you doing?’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Get your foot out of my house.’
‘Come on, Jas, you’re being unreasonable. It’s freezing out here. I just want to talk.’
His patronising tone only infuriated her more. How many times had he used that on her, exploited her weakness, convinced her that he was the one who could solve all their problems as long as she listened, as long as she did it his way?
She kicked at his foot, wishing she wearing something weightier than ugg boots. ‘We’ve nothing to say to each other. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not ever.’
Mike suffered the kicks, his focus on her face. Jas recognised the expression and wanted to laugh.
He blinked rapidly, his mouth fighting a downward curve. ‘Don’t do this. Not to us.’ A tear formed and was splashed sideways by the wind.
A month ago, perhaps even a week, she would have succumbed. Not tonight. Not after the letters, not after the lamp, and definitely not after his attempted break-in.
‘Save your tears for your wife. They don’t work on me anymore.’ With a last fury-filled lunge, Jas flung herself as hard as she could against the door.
This time he couldn’t sustain his hold. With a bellow of pain, Mike yanked his foot away. The door slammed. Jasmine snapped down the lock and pressed her back to the timber. She scanned across the hall to the laundry for something to wedge against it and remembered the rubber door stoppers she used in summer to keep the house open and let a breeze through.
The door shuddered against Mike’s fist. ‘You don’t mean this!’
‘Oh,’ muttered Jas to herself as she hurried into the laundry, ‘I sure do.’
With the rear secured she strode for the front. When that stopper was jammed tight she stood back, folded her arms and tuned into the night.
The wind and sea continued to roar. Her heartbeat clogged her ears. Every sound kept her on edge. Jas began to tremble slightly as the fear he might not leave, that he might turn dangerous, crept over her. She slid backwards from the entrance, seeking the kitchen and the safety of its potential weaponry and her mobile phone. Listening.
Finally, with the sweat growing clammy on her skin, she heard a car door slam. Seconds later, a powerful engine revved. Jas ducked towards the window, taking care to stay side on and out of view. Lights swept up the drive as a car crept slowly from the rear of the house and gathered speed. Moonlight splashed the roof of Mike’s dark BMW sedan, highlighting its rapid path to the road. In a skid of tyres the car swung out onto the bitumen and accelerated. Tail lights glowed and disappeared like winking eyes until all that was left was howling wind and darkness.
And a heart torn between relief and misery.
Digby Wallace-Jones hunched his shoulders against the cold and continued to walk. It was all he seemed to do these days. Walk, drink too much. Not speak. Sometimes, when he looked to the south and saw the hated slopes of Rocking Horse Hill, tears would fall. For Felicity. For himself and the void she’d left.
He missed her like he would miss his heart if it was cut out. Without Flick life was beatless, bloodless. Nothing flowed in his veins except anger and loss, and the pain of his leftover, never-to-be-reciprocated love. Even the nightmares, with their looming, hyper-magnified visions of her perfect face, were a kind of blessing. He could touch her in those dreams. Say things. Alter time. Save her.
But there would be no saving her. Right now he didn’t want to save himself either.
Footfall after footfall, he trudged on through the stripped leaves and twigs that strewed the footpaths of Levenham. Exercise was good, the counsellor advised, but all it did was give Digby more time alone in his head with its caverns of loss and anger.
People stared. When he bothered to look up he could see them peering through car windows as they passed. If he ventured near the main street the scrutiny would grow worse, prickling his back and making his scalp itch. Everyone in Levenham knew who he was and everyone thought they knew his loss, but they didn’t. No one could ever comprehend his suffering.
His grandmother had tried to explain that she understood. She too had lost—a husband, a lover, a friend. Digby was not unique, and while that knowledge would never make it easier, he needed to realise the truth of her experience. Time would heal. Life would bring new opportunities for love. He simply had to be patient.
But for Digby time only meant hell, sitting in his apartment above the old converted stables at the Wallace family’s majestic 1890s mansion, Camrick, knowing that with every second Flick moved further away from him. Time was lying alone in a bed that had once been warm and scented with her, thinking of something she’d like and turning to tell her, only to find a void. Time was finding yet more ways to avoid his family, friends and colleagues and their fearful expressions. Time was too much of nothing.
The footpath swung right and opened onto the large park that extended behind the town’s library and council chambers. The oaks were in full leaf, casting shadows that danced with the breeze. It was calmer today. The storm that had raged through two nights before had faded. A few branches had come down. Digby inspected the broken limb of a tree as he passed, the professional in him instinctively calculating the damage and treatment, when the truth was he didn’t care. He’d yet to return to work at the Department of Primary Industries, where he’d been employed as a horticultural scientist and district adviser since leaving university. He doubted he ever would. The inquest had killed any chance of that.
He’d been starting to recover. Not much, but the ragged rawness of his sorrow had lost its painful edges. A kind of dullness had settled in. Then the inquest into Felicity’s death arrived like a bulldozer, and the crumbly, fragile walls he’d been trying to build around his grief and horror were smashed to the ground. Everything came back. The roar of Rocking Horse Hill as its old quarry collapsed, the clench of panic and terror. The hysterical barks of Em’s dog as Josh tried to drag Em back from the edge. The sickening vision of Felicity’s grip slowly slipping from his sister’s.
Then the screams and bellows as the hillside gave way in an avalanche of rock and dirt and mud, carrying Digby and the cherished new world he’d found, so filled with love, with it.
A man appeared at the edge of the park with a small dog on a leash. Digby turned immediately away and kept moving, hands thrust into his pockets. The urge to run from the risk of contact was huge, yet Digby also knew he couldn’t keep this self-imposed isolation up forever. But there was no one he could trust. Not his mother, or grandmother, and absolutely not his sister Em.
A few late lunchtime walkers were out. It was past one-thirty and most workers had returned to their desks. Levenham wasn’t large—around 15,000 people—but it acted as a service city for the region’s agricultural, forestry and fisheries industries. Tourism was on the rise too, now that local vineyards were winning accolades and investing in cellar-door facilities. There was a time when Digby was proud to say he’d played a small part in that success, but no more.
A bench sat empty in the shadows of one of the oaks. He settled down with his perpetually cold hands still plunged into his pockets to stare at nothing. Perhaps his lack of interest in anything local was a sign it was time to move on. The Wallaces had been the weave in Levenham’s fabric for generations, the region’s abundance fuelling a growth in wealth that his ancestors had used to help build a town they could be proud of. Their foundation stones, embedded like rocky fingerprints, were everywhere, from churches to fountains and civic buildings. His sister ran a business here. His mother and grandmother still played their part on committees and volunteer groups. In time, as heir to the family fortune, it was expected that he would too.
Digby let out a shuddery breath. A year had passed since Felicity’s death and yet nothing had changed within him. He still hurt, still missed her. Still tripped over every tiny reminder of their time together like a blind man in the dark. Maybe it was time to leave, escape the pressure. Find somewhere far away, with a landscape flat to the horizon in every direction. A place without any reminders of Rocking Horse Hill.
He blinked against the heat building in his eyes, blindsided by the thought. He couldn’t leave. She was here, the last traces of her. All he had.
He glanced up then rapidly looked aside, using his upper arm to rub his eyes.
Jas must have known what she’d seen but was kind enough not to say anything. Instead she sat down beside him, opened a plastic lunch box and began rummaging inside.
‘If it’s any consolation, I’m having a pretty ordinary day too.’
It wasn’t, but it was good of her to say. Digby forced what he hoped resembled a smile and resumed staring over the lawn.
‘I have a ham and cheese sandwich I can share, if you’re interested.’ She dug a little more and pulled out a muesli bar, angling it towards him. ‘Or there’s this.’
‘Thanks, but I’m not hungry.’
She sighed. ‘I wish I wasn’t, but if I don’t eat I’ll never make it through the rest of the afternoon.’
Jas took a bite of the sandwich and chewed for a while. Digby hoped she wouldn’t bring up Em. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to talk about his sister. And he sure as hell didn’t want to talk about her wedding, no matter how much Digby owed her fiancé Josh. It was bad enough that Digby was best man. Only loyalty and gratitude to Josh for saving his life at the quarry had made Digby agree to it, and not a day went by when he didn’t wish he’d said no. Hearing them say their vows in the same church where he and Flick had planned to marry, watching their happiness, would take strength Digby wasn’t sure he possessed.
‘Can I ask you something?’
Digby eyed her, then looked away, shrugging.
‘If I wanted to put a lock on my gate, what would be the best way to do it?’
Digby swung back. ‘Why would you want to lock your gate?’
This time it was Jasmine’s turn to avoid his gaze and shrug. ‘Just a question.’
He kept up his study. Jasmine was his sister’s best friend. She’d been a fixture at Camrick and the Wallace property at Rocking Horse Hill since he was a boy, invited to all but the most intimate of family events. He knew her. Jasmine was fun, warm and welcoming. Locking her gate? That didn’t fit.
What also didn’t fit was the fatigue showing on her pretty face. Her normally healthy pink skin was pale, making the bruised circles under her eyes appear even darker, and her shoulders had a defeated sag. Jasmine had always been proudly large-chested and never shied from showing her assets off, plus years of riding show horses had given her a straight-backed posture. Today her body was so hunched it was as if she were in hiding, or protecting herself.
Digby felt a stir of worry. ‘What’s up, Jas?’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’ But she refused to look at him.
He observed her for a few moments longer and let it go. What did he care about her secrets? He had enough of his own to worry about. He leaned forward as though to press himself to his feet, and felt a hand on his arm.
‘Stay? A bit longer?’ She waved her half-eaten sandwich. ‘At least until I’ve finished this?’
Digby frowned at the need in her tone and nodded, but there was tension now. The tension of his unspoken questions and the puzzle of what she was hiding.
‘What sort of latch is it?’ he asked after a while.
‘Hook and eye. I was thinking just a padlock over the hook would do.’
‘Probably. You could also fit a bike chain, running from the gate around the strainer post.’
She chewed on that. ‘That might be easiest. One of those ones with a combination lock so I don’t have to worry about a key.’
‘Won’t stop anyone climbing the fence though.’
‘No,’ she said softly, staring at the lunchbox rested on her lap, ‘it won’t. But it might be enough.’
‘Enough for what?’ When she didn’t answer he prodded again. ‘Jas?’
She glanced at her watch. ‘Oh, look at the time.’ She took a last bite of her sandwich, dumped the rest into the box and closed the lid. She stood, the smile fixed on him clearly faked. ‘Thanks for your company.’
Digby felt a weird urge to laugh. His company? He’d barely strung two sentences together.
He rose to stand with her. ‘You sure you’re all right?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ Her wide blue gaze fell on his. Blue eyes. A knot formed in his chest as he remembered Felicity’s face. ‘The more important question is, are you?’
‘I’ll be all right.’
She pressed her palm against his upper arm. ‘I hope so.’
With a last smile she left him, hurrying across the lawn towards the main street and the building society where she worked, leaving Digby frowning in her wake.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Wayward Heart by Cathryn Hein!
Available now in print and e-book.