A small town, a new arrival, and a love that is as undeniable as it is unlawful...
Victoria, Australia, 1891
Anglican priest Matthew Ottenshaw receives his first posting in tiny Dinbratten, two days' ride from his Melbourne home. Determined to honour his calling as best he can, he throws himself into the footy mad, two–pub town, navigating the dusty streets, learning the gossip, and striking up a friendship with Jonah Parks, the resident police sergeant and local bona fide hero.
A police officer and a priest often find themselves needed at the same place, and Jonah and Matthew's friendship deepens quickly, as they set about their business of protecting the bodies and souls of Dinbratten's residents. When a bushfire threatens the town, and Matthew's inexperience with fire endangers the church buildings, Jonah comes to the rescue, and a reckless kiss in the midst of the chaos takes their friendship to forbidden.
Neither Matthew nor Jonah can go back to the way things were before, but continuing their relationship puts everything at risk: their jobs, their friends, even their lives. In the outback town of Dinbratten where everyone knows everything about everyone else, how can they ever expect to keep a secret this explosive?
'Told with an old-fashioned, authentically Australian wink and a smile...By the Currawong's Call is also a tale with a very timely message: people in love will marry whether it's legal or not.' - Australian author Kim Kelly
'By the Currawong's Call, set in 1891 rural Australia, is a gorgeous story of forbidden love.' - The Novel Approach Reviews
'There is a lushness to the writing, a sweeping, lyrical feeling to the story that just drew me in and kept me captivated.' - Joyfully Jay LGBTQ romance reviews
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Two crows sat on the front gable of the little weatherboard church, telling each other terrible jokes.
At the gatepost, Matthew read the hand-painted sign —
All Souls Anglican Church, Dinbratten Rev. Matthew Ottenshaw
Vaguely, beneath his own, fresh name, Matthew could just make out older lettering that named the township's previous minister.
The coachman was hauling Matthew's trunk — more a footlocker really, and mainly filled with books — from the luggage sling at the back of the coach. Matthew stepped forward to take one handle himself and help ease it to the ground. The sounds of music and loud voices on the air turned his head to the west.
'Sounds like a party,' he remarked, his gaze finding only gum trees. A pale setting sun was low behind the branches, its glare through the dusty leaves making Matthew's eyes water slightly.
'Commercial Hotel's just over there.' The coachman gave a directional nod. 'There was footy today, qualifier for the district final. By sounds of it, I'd say the Rats got up.'
'Dinbratten,' the coachman elucidated. He gave the merest hand wave as he said it, that one movement seemingly enough to indicate the entire small town. 'Locals call it Ratty. Footy team's the Rats. Everyone here's a Ratty.'
'Ah.' Matthew smiled. 'Well, it's nice to arrive in a town with something to celebrate.' He eased his shoulders into a rolling stretch and tilted a crick out of his neck. The coach ride and long train journey from Melbourne had stiffened all his joints.
The coachman bent over and hefted Matthew's trunk into both arms. 'It's a big football town, this. They're mad about their footy here. Got a decent team too. Probably makes 'em like it all the more.' He took a couple of steps before seeming to recall that Matthew didn't know where they were headed. 'Rectory's down this path, Father,' he said, and continued walking.
Not wanting to hold the man up while he was helpfully lugging the trunk about on his own, Matthew leaned back into the coach quickly to retrieve his leather satchel and carpet bag. He hastened to follow the driver onto the dirt path winding around the church's eastern side. He again eyed the freshly painted sign as he passed it.
The path to the rectory meandered between large eucalyptus trees and a peppercorn, flanked by undisciplined borders of creeping daisies. A smudge of lawn would probably burn to crisp golden brown come summer, but in these last days of August it delivered a healthy green up to the stone paving of the rectory's porch.
The rectory itself was small and neat. Matthew had known not to expect a grand or even more-than-modest residence; vicars in small country towns were lucky to live in more than one room. The rectory of All Souls looked to be a two-room cottage, more than adequate for a man living alone.
'Here alright?' the coachman asked, depositing the trunk near the door without waiting for Matthew's response.
'Yes, that's fine,' Matthew hurried to assure him. 'Thank you.'
'Right then. I'll leave you to it.'
'Thank you,' Matthew said again.
The coachman touched the front of his hat and gave Matthew a tight smile. He was wearing the relief of his long workday nearing its end. 'Good luck with the new parish, Father.'
Matthew returned his smile warmly and waved as the man stomped back to the path. Keys, he thought. Matthew opened his satchel and dug around until he came up with the metal hoop that held the keys for the church, the rectory and the small church hall. The one for the rectory was the last he tried — of course — and he left the key in the door as it swung open on his new home.
He had guessed right, the Dinbratten rectory was two rooms. The main room was surprisingly large, really, containing a big fireplace, a wooden table with two chairs, an old armchair, a sideboard with pans and crockery, and a small bookcase. Matthew set his satchel and bag on the table as he walked through to the other room, where an iron-frame double bed, a dresser and a washing stand were the entire contents. He pressed a fist into the bare mattress of the bed, surprised to find it quite firm.
Returning to the main room, Matthew retrieved the keys from the door and pulled his trunk inside. The rectory's floors were the same stone as that of the porch. Both rooms were adorned with simple floral wallpaper. He'd expected far worse — packed earth floors and newspaper pages on the walls, to be honest — but then recalled the previous vicar had been a married man, so there was clearly a woman's touch at work.
Matthew's investigation next took him out the back door. Some pavers in the same stone as the other floors led to a little outhouse that proved to be the laundry, a tin bath tub hanging on its wall, and another, even smaller outhouse was the lavatory. All perfectly serviceable. Matthew availed himself of the amenities after his long journey then cleaned up, preparing for a quick inspection of his new church before dusk crept any closer. Magpies gurgled in the trees as he walked beneath them.
The Church of All Souls and the accompanying hall to its left were matching weatherboard buildings, both painted white, though perhaps not particularly recently. The hall was a large square room with several bench seats, a raised dais, and a small store-cum-dressing room attached at the back. A hand-chiselled, wooden sign above the double front doors proudly proclaimed it the William Dinbratten Hall.
All Souls itself was the classic oblong nave with an added sacristy at the rear that was little more than a spacious lean-to. Compared to many of the churches with which Matthew had been familiar in the city, the little bush church was Spartan, but Matthew found the simplicity quite charming. The windows were its most striking feature; four on each side of the nave, they alternated blue and yellow panes, all dimpled in an obscure pattern.
The building smelled of wood and old flowers, dust from the road just outside, and eucalypt from the trees that stood all around. It was a welcoming building. No doubt it would be stifling at the height of summer and arctic in the nadir of winter, but Matthew looked forward to experiencing all its moods and lights. It was a building he wanted to sing in. A building of unpretentious devotion.
Matthew walked up the aisle, fingers sliding over the rounded tops of the pews. He didn't immediately step up onto the chancel dais when he reached it, but instead lowered to his knees and bowed his head.
'Grant unto us, O merciful God, knowledge and true understanding of thy word that, all ignorance expelled, we may know what thy will and pleasure is in all things, and how to do our duties, and truly to walk in our vocation: by our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.'
His first days in Dinbratten were taken with settling into his new home. Even though the rectory had not stood empty long, there was cleaning and dusting to be done, and Matthew was determined to do these himself. He wanted to know every nook of his donated domicile, wished intimacy with every quirk of stone and pattern of wood. His meagre belongings soon had places that pleased him, his books divided into two groups, upon the mantel and beside the armchair.
Briefly, he made the acquaintance of All Souls' long-serving, self-appointed housekeeper, Mrs Sutherland, a strong lady whose silver hair seemed almost violet and whose accent foiled Matthew's attempts to place it. She shared a rushed cup of tea with him before racing away to her next obligation, promising him a visit on Wednesday afternoon to prepare the church for Evensong service. She was quite a force of nature. Matthew liked her immediately.
Similarly, he could not help but love his little church and its simple rectory, its country setting and the magnificent bush gully that fell away behind it. In the city, Matthew had never given much thought to the native Australian vegetation. Eucalypts were such funny, ugly trees with their dustiness and dullness, their not-quite-greenness, their total disregard for symmetry. But being so in among them as he now was, as the gum trees stood sentry around the church and its buildings with their wonky arms in the air as if trying to catch the expanse of sky above them, Matthew inhaled the medicinal scent and exhaled love for them. He felt embraced.
Matthew's excitement built steadily by Wednesday afternoon. That evening's Evensong would mark his debut in Dinbratten's pulpit. Not that the humble church actually had one of those. He didn't expect a large congregation for the mid-week service, but curiosity might tempt out a few to judge the newly arrived vicar.
It was curiosity, certainly, that brought two dashing young women to the church door, hours before Evensong was due to start, just as Matthew was about to begin readying the church. Matthew guessed their ages as late adolescent, twenty probably still a little way off. They were clearly best of friends, clasping each other's arms for courage in talking to the new man in town. They introduced themselves as the Misses Daly and Price. And they rather giggled a lot.
'Very pleased to meet you both, ladies,' Matthew told them cordially, shaking each of their offered hands in turn. The redhead and the blonde were smiling so hard at him he feared for their facial muscles.
'It's so nice to have a younger vicar at last, Father!' said Miss Price.
'And a single one!' added Miss Daly. Her friend's elbow veered roughly towards her rib cage. 'I mean,' Miss Daly hastened to amend, 'it's so nice having another ... young person who'll understand us other young people better. If you know what I mean.'
Oh, yes, thought Matthew, I'm quite sure I know exactly what you mean. He smiled politely. 'Indeed, Miss Daly.'
Thinking back to his own adolescence, Matthew had a faint remembrance that anyone over the age of thirty was already considered elderly. The fact that these young ladies were so excited about his age made him wonder just how old the previous vicar must have been.
'So where was your last parish, Father?' Miss Price asked.
'I was on a relieving post in Camberwell for almost two years,' Matthew replied. 'The minister had taken ill and needed a lot of treatment.' Both of his audience members made appropriate sympathetic noises. 'Before that, I took temporary postings of varying lengths across Melbourne after serving my curacy. But this is my first proper posting, really. Completely solo.'
'Well, we're so happy to have you,' Miss Daly gushed. The words themselves might not have been so suspect, were they not accompanied by such hungry looks in the young women's eyes.
'You two should leave the Father be while he settles into his new home!' Mrs Sutherland's voice boomed from the sacristy doorway where she now stood with an armful of flowers, presumably from her own garden. 'Let the poor man get his bearings before he has to start fighting you lot off!'
Matthew willed his face not to flush. Miss Price and Miss Daly both pouted and exchanged outraged glances.
'Well,' Miss Price gathered herself together to say. 'We're busy ourselves, aren't we, Aggie?'
'Yes? I mean yes,' said Miss Daly. 'Very! Very busy. We should get going with that.'
Matthew felt a genuine smile ease into being, feeling not a small amount of empathy for the girls' sudden awkwardness. 'It was lovely to meet you both,' he reiterated. 'I look forward to seeing you again. At tonight's Evensong, perhaps?'
They both smiled dazzlers at him. 'Oh, we'll be here, alright!' Miss Daly assured him.
'With bells on!' Miss Price added.
Clearly, a disapproving Mrs Sutherland was still glaring from the sacristy door, as Matthew saw Miss Daly look beyond him and grimace. 'We're, um, very devout,' she mumbled. And the two of them turned and made for the door. As soon as they were outside, they both broke into laughter that carried straight back into the church. Matthew grinned, particularly when he distinctly heard one of them — Miss Price, he believed — declaring in rapturous approval to her friend, 'Have you ever seen such green eyes?'
Mrs Sutherland sidled up beside him. A dozen blue flower heads brushed Matthew's arm. 'You'll have to excuse them, Father. A new young man's arrival in town is quite the event in their lives.'
'I'm not exactly in their age group, Missus Sutherland.'
'Tch. Yer what? Thirty, if you're a day?'
'Thirty-four,' Matthew confirmed.
'Aye, well. Good marrying age, that. You have to see it from their point of view, Father. A new young man arrives in town, unmarried, educated, with a respectable job. And if all that's not enough, he looks like you to boot!'
Matthew frowned. 'Looks like me?'
Mrs Sutherland gave him a look that was two parts pity and one part indulgence. 'Fierce as an Irish saint, as my Granny, God-rest-her, would say — dark and pale and emerald!' She smiled softly into the middle distance, gaze no doubt fixed in childhood nostalgia, before coming back to him. 'My meaning is, you're a handsome so-and-so, Father. Don't know if you've noticed.' She nodded towards the spot where Miss Price and Miss Daly had recently stood. 'But they certainly have.' She shifted her load of flowers into the other arm. 'You'd best get used to the attention, I'd say.'
'Oh, I don't think I —'
'You'll have to decide early on how you're going to deal with it, too. Right off the bat, decide if you're happy to indulge them or not.' She patted at Matthew's forearm just lightly. 'But be consistent about it. They'll soon work out if they stand half a chance or not.'
'I honestly haven't come here in search of a wife,' Matthew said.
'No need to inform me of your desires, Father.' Mrs Sutherland started fussing with the flowers. 'Just be sure that you know them for yourself.' She looked him square in the eye just before turning away towards the altar. 'And then you stick to it.'
Matthew watched in silence a few moments while the old woman made her way from vase to vase across the width of the chancel, depositing small posies of flowers into each vessel. He was letting her words sink in, taking on board the advice she'd just administered. It was something he really had not considered before taking up this post — what "prospect" he might unwittingly pose to the young ladies of his new parish. The various posts he'd occupied prior to Dinbratten hadn't come with such a problem, all being urban areas where maidens had a far deeper and wider pool of suitors than the limited population such a town as this could offer. Briefly, Matthew intensely missed his seminary days, when such dilemmas never had to be considered.
Finished with the flowers, Mrs Sutherland pulled some rags from the front pocket of her apron and started dusting the wooden fittings of the chancel and altar. Matthew mentally shook himself from his self-indulgent musings and strode up the aisle to join her.
'Please, Missus Sutherland.' He slipped one of the dusting rags from her hand. 'Allow me to help with that.' Less than half an hour later, the two of them had made short work of the various housekeeping jobs throughout the nave.
'Reckon we need a cuppa,' Mrs Sutherland had just said when the sound of boots on the wooden floor made them both look up from their handiwork.
Standing just inside the church door was an imposing man in a navy and white uniform. Tall and slim with wide, straight shoulders and just-slightly bowed legs, he was immediately recognisable as a member of the constabulary by his helmet and the revolver strapped to his hip.
'Oh!' Mrs Sutherland exclaimed. 'Sergeant Parks! What are you doing around here now?'
The sergeant lifted a hand to his face and slid the chinstrap of his helmet up so he could remove the head wear entirely. He had light brown hair, worn short, which tended to auburn in his neat beard. Placing his helmet into the crook of his left elbow, he advanced down the aisle with a confident, authoritative step, the heels of his black riding boots making an impressive sound on the floorboards. Nearing Matthew, he held his right hand out in greeting.
'Yes,' said Matthew, taking the man's hand.
'Jonah Parks,' he was told in return. 'Local copper. How ya doin'?'
'I'm doing well, thank you, Sergeant. And yourself?'
'Can't complain, mate.' Although his handshake was dominant, Parks had a pleasant enough air about him, with dark blue eyes, and a lazy grin. Up close, it was clear he was likely around Matthew's own age.
Excerpted from "By The Currawong's Call"
Copyright © 2017 Welton B Marsland.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd..
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