Claire McIntyre has it all: an adoring husband, a bubbly best friend, a chic town house and a high-flying corporate career in the city. But somehow she's forgotten what really makes her happy.
After receiving tragic news, closely followed by the loss of her job, Claire's world is thrown into turmoil. Forced to reevaluate everything that matters to her, she soon finds herself back at the very place she's been running from her whole lifethe family property, where reputations are hard won and easily lost, and where fortune is as fickle as the weather.
Here, in the rugged beauty of the Australian Adelaide Hills, Claire starts to rebuild her life with her friends, her father and his beloved racehorsesincluding a promising young horse called Paycheque. But just as she begins to find happiness, and perhaps even love, fate comes to call. Now Claire must decide whether to do the sensible thing, or risk it all on her newfound passion.
|File size:||398 KB|
About the Author
For more info, visit www.fionamccallum.com. Fiona can also be followed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Fiona McCallum-author.
Read an Excerpt
Claire rolled onto her stomach and peered at the clock radio on what had been Keith's bedside table. She'd woken early, before dawn, and had managed to doze off again. Now she was surprised to find it was after ten. Anyway, it was Sunday: she'd laze about till lunch-time if she wanted.
Even after four months she still found herself aching for Keith's embrace, his sweet musky scent and
Snippets of dreams came back to her. In one they'd showered together and then made love in the lounge, on the plush rug in front of the gas log fire. It had been beautiful: him tender, giving; she responding, clinging to him.
She'd woken hot and sweating, despite it being chilly outside, instantly feeling embarrassed at her arousal. But it hadn't been Keith's face at all, had it? No, the face had been blank. Who had it been? She shook her head, trying hard to remember. After a few moments she gave up.
In another dream he'd been lying beside her saying he loved her, that it was okay to move on, that it wouldn't mean she loved him any less. 'I know you have needs,' he'd said with a wink, before drifting from her slumbering memory.
That had definitely been Keith. His face now came to her clearly: the slightly crooked, cheeky grin; the fringe he insisted on keeping too long to cover the scar above his left eyeapparently the result of a silly, drunken escapade at university. She'd never heard the full storyhe'd always managed to sidestep her question with a well-timed hug. Now she'd never know. And she'd never have another of his comforting, bear-like hugs.
A tear escaped and her throat caught on the forming lump. She'd give her life for just one more hug with Keith. Would she ever find anything so comfortable again? Did she even want to look?
'Oh, Keith,' she whispered. If only she'd shown him more affection and not taken their contentment so much for granted.
Claire roughly wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, pushed aside her mop of unruly hair and sat up.
Claire had a quick shower and stoodtowel wrapped around herstudying her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Did her hairstyle make her features appear hard? For years she'd been talking about getting her hair cut like Jennifer Aniston'schipped into so that it wasn't so full down the back and sidesbut had never been brave enough to go through with it. She'd always kept it plain, practicalstraight across the bottom and in a ponytail to keep it away from her face. It was the way Keith had liked it. She'd never dyed it, eitheralways stuck with her natural medium brown shade. Bernadette and her hairdresser had both given up trying to talk her around years ago.
Claire held her hair away from her face and turned left and right, examining the effect in the mirror. Did she dare? Keith was no longer there to complain. She let it down again. Bernie was right: short didn't suit her. Anyway, she'd feel too self-conscious. But she could definitely do with less bulk around her face. She dragged her brush through her hair a couple of times and put it into a ponytail.
She ran her electric toothbrush around her mouth while roaming the bedroompulling up the quilt and straightening the pillows. She had her underwear drawer open, about to pull out socks, knickers and bra, when her toothbrush buzzed, signalling her two minutes was up. She turned it off, stood it on the edge of the vanity beside Keith's and rinsed her mouth. Then she added a thin layer of foundation to her face and neck with her fingers, swept the mascara brush once across each set of lashes, added two layers of deep rose-pink 'Goddess' lipstick, blotted with toilet paper and returned to the bedroom to get dressed.
Claire McIntyre was conservative through and through. Her uniform rarely varied: navy or grey skirt suit cut just below the knee for work; jeans or tailored pants and shirt or knit for weekends. Evening wear was a lolly-pink wrap over a little black dressif size twelve was still considered little. It ended four inches above the knee and showed just the right amount of decolle-tage to straddle the fine line between tarty and prudish. Despite the current trend for bare, bottle-tanned legs and towering stilettos, Claire insisted on sheer, smokycoloured pantyhose and sensible plain black shoes with ample room for her toes.
Even her career was conservative. Yes, she'd had different roles, but she'd been with the same company for twelve years when the done thing was to move on every few. But she was happy enough; why go through the stress of looking for something else, just so your CV would show you were progressive? Anyway, there were leave entitlements to think of. Claire wasn't exactly thrilled with her job but enjoyed the security of a regular paycheque.
She'd joined the national advertising firm Rockford and Associates as a marketing graduate. Hard work and long hours had seen her move into a senior role in account management. Three years ago she'd been promoted to Client Relationship Manager for one of the firm's largest clients, AHG Recruitment.
Since losing Keith, she had been all the more grateful for the familiarity of her open-plan cubicle and routine tasks: a welcomeif mundanesource of stability in her life.
But now Claire felt something within her stirring: a strange kind of yearning. But for what? It wasn't Keith. It wasn't a dull sad ache. This was differentmore a restlessness.
She focussed on her hair again. Knowing her luck, the Aniston look was now as fashionable as the mullet. Maybe her hairdresser had better ideascould she offer free rein? Claire felt excited at the prospect, even a little empowered. Yes, she'd definitely phone for an appointment.
Bernadette was right: if grief was like a brick wall, each step towards recovery was the removal of a brick, then a layer. Eventually she'd be able to step over the top and be free. Then she'd look back at the good times without tears and remember the not-so-good times with detachment. But it took time. The trick was to allow the bricks to come away when the mortar loosenedand not to stop their progress with a slap of concrete.
Of course, she wouldn't cut her hair without a second opinion from her best friend. She'd mention it when they next spoke.
Claire and Bernie had known each other since Pony Club and primary school. They'd even studied the same course at university and then started their first jobs at the same companybut in different departments. Twelve months in, Bernadette had been fired for rejecting her boss's advances with a swift slap across his face. Claire had considered protesting by leaving with her, but only for a second; she didn't have the courage to quit without the security of another job to go to. Thankfully Bernie had understood.
The episode had sent Claire into a spin of worrying about what her friend would do, but Bernadette had seen it as a sign she was ready to pursue her dream: opening a nursery specialising in old-fashioned plants, design and accessories. Apparently the Adelaide Hills area was full of people wanting old English-style gardensGod only knew why with the water restrictions.
Regardless, and despite only being in her early twenties, Bernadette had built a successful business on box hedges, white gravel and distressed wrought-iron outdoor furniture.
Claire regularly shook her head in wonder and sometimes felt a twingebut of what she wasn't sure. Not jealousy; she would never wish her friend anything but all the very best. Seeing Bernadette chasing her dream made her wonder about her own choices. Still, Claire was no different to about ninety-five percent of the population.
Besides, there was no way she'd want to deal with the public every day. She'd spent a lot of time at the nursery, occasionally even manning the till. One virtue Claire McIntyre did not possess was patience, and tolerance with other people's indecision was in pretty short supply as well. She would have strangled someone by now if she was Bernadette and couldn't believe Bernie hadn't.
Bernadette had always been the quintessential redhead. Her uncontrollable curls stood out like a warning, something Claire realisedtoo lateon the day they met.
It was their first Pony Club rally and they were both eleven. Bernie was on a small cranky grey pony, Claire on a larger bay. Claire had accidently got too close to Bernie's pony and it had darted sideways in fright, almost causing Bernie to fall off. Bernie shouted so loudly that Claire's mother heard the commotion. Grace McIntyre stormed across the arena to tell her daughter off. Mortified, Claire turned her tomato-red facefirst to the instructor and then to Bernieand said she was sorry.
Bernie had smirked, tossing her head in the air before moving her pony away. Claire decided she didn't like this Bernadette girl very much. But later, Bernie had come up to her at the tap while she was filling her water bucket and said it wasn't fair how much Claire's mother had overreacted. They'd been firm friends ever since.
Bernie used to fly off the handle with the slightest provocation. Once she got started, she wouldn't un-clamp her teeth from an argument, even if she knew she was wrong. It was probably the reason she was still single and most definitely why corporate life hadn't been for her. You just couldn't scream at your boss that he was a dickhead one day and ask for a raise the next. And slapping him was a definite no-no.
But she had mellowed since finding her 'place in the cosmos', as she called it. Now her fire was being fuelled with passion, and she was a lot calmer.
Claire bit her bottom lip. No, when it came to Bernadette, if she was envious, it was of her state of mind. Bernie glowed with contentment and enthusiasm whenever she spokeand not just about the business. Even late deliveries weren't enough to unsettle her. She'd just shrug and say that they'd turn up when they were ready. According to Bernie, everything would work out in the end. And for her it usually did.
For the thousandth time, Claire wondered at the reasoning behind Keith being taken from her, and then dismissed the thoughts as ridiculous. There was no reason. He'd had a tragic accident and she just had to get over it. And what about her father's accident? Why had that happened?
Whatever the reasons, nothing could alter the fact that she was having the worst year possible. Things always happened in threes: she and Bernadette had pointed out so many instances before. Since Keith's death and Jack's accident, it had become a taboo subject. Claire wondered what else she was to be faced with. The doctors had assured her Jack's injuries weren't life-threateninghe'd come out of his coma when he was ready. It was just a matter of time. But how much time? It had already been a month.
Claire was relieved she hadn't been the one to find Jack crumpled in a silent heap on the ground. Thank goodness neighbours Bill and Daphne Markson had thought to invite him over for an early dinnerluckier still they had thought to drop in on their way back from town instead of phoning. She knew she should spend more time with her father. She had visited a lot in the months after her mother's death five years ago, but gradually the pace of work and social life in the city had engulfed her again. In the past year, she was lucky to see him every three weeks.
Until the accident, of course. She was now spending a couple of hours each day after work sitting with himtime she didn't really have to spare. She felt guilty every time she turned up because invariably Bill and Daphne were already thereBill reading the paper and Daphne knitting. It was a jumper for Jack, made from chunky homespun natural grey lamb's wool.
Claire tried to tell herself it was different for them because they were retired, but felt guilty all over again when she remembered that they'd driven nearly forty minutes to be there, not ten as she had. But they didn't have an inbox full of six hundred emails waiting to be read and responded to. Claire had tried to sit and do nothing, but on the third day had given up and started bringing her laptop to make better use of the time. She didn't think you were allowed to use electronic equipment in hospitals, but no one had told her off yet.
Claire checked her watchvisiting hours at the hospital were starting soon. She ran down the stairs, grabbed her laptop bag from the kitchen bench and her keys from the bowl on the hall table. Having punched the code into the security system, she deadlocked the door and pulled it shut behind her.