We’re thrilled to have Charlotte Nash with us again today, with an excerpt from her latest release. ‘The Paris Wedding’ is released on 27th June 2017 and can be pre-ordered from: iBooks, Kobo, Google Play (Charlotte Nash Author Page), Amazon AU, Booktopia
The day after the funeral, Rachael by force of habit, woke near dawn and made two cups of tea. She dumped the teabags in the sink, then, remembering it would annoy Tess, squeezed them out and tossed them in the bin. It took her longer to register that the second cup wasn’t needed.
She poured her mother’s tea away and braced her hands on the sink, looking out the window. Their harvest had finished two weeks ago and the wide rolling fields of stubble were grey before the sunrise. A beautiful grey, like a dove’s feather, joining the pale soft light at the horizon. As the sun appeared, it gilded the cut stalks, and the single majestic gum on the rise seemed to float on a sea of burnished gold.
Seven, Rachael thought. Seven sunrises without my mother.
She pressed her hand to her mouth. The tears kept boiling up unbidden, the wound still raw and open. Mercifully, Tess, Joel and the children were still asleep. She had time to pull herself together.
‘You’re up early.’
Rachael jumped and sucked back the tears. Tess had padded into the kitchen in thick, silent socks. Her checked robe was tightly knotted at her waist, her blonde hair stowed in a neat plait. Rachael involuntarily touched the unbrushed, ragged clump behind her head, the result of sleeping on her ponytail. Amidst the frizz were bits of broken elastic sticking up from the overstretched band.
‘So, we’re getting started on Mum’s things?’ Tess asked, flicking on the kettle.
‘Mum’s things. I asked you about it last night. You said we’d do it today.’
‘When?’ Rachael said. She couldn’t remember a single thing that had happened yesterday, apart from those two women talking outside her window. The day had been a blur of tears and hymns and the scent of white lilies.
‘No, I mean when did you ask me?’
‘After dinner. When Joel was doing the dishes.’
‘I don’t remember.’
She didn’t even remember eating dinner. She took her tea from the windowsill, but didn’t drink it. She wouldn’t have been able to swallow around the lump in her throat.
‘Look, have some breakfast,’ she said, dodging around Tess.
‘I’ll eat later. Where to first – lounge or bedroom?’
‘We don’t need to start right now,’ Rachael said, trying and failing to keep the wobble out of her voice.
‘But it’ll be a huge job. Her wardrobe is overflowing. What a woman on a farm wanted with all those fancy clothes, I don’t know.’
‘She made a lot of them for other people – for formals and weddings and things like that.’
‘What are they doing in her cupboard then?’
‘Because people brought them back and she’d modify them for someone else. She didn’t—’
‘I bet you don’t even know what’s in there,’ Tess said. ‘I bet that ottoman’s still stuffed with winter woollies nobody wears. Don’t worry, Joel will feed the kids and keep them away.’
Rachael had a vision of her sister striding around her mother’s room and stuffing garbage bags with dresses and quilts and other precious things, mixing up what was going where. ‘No,’ she said.
‘I don’t understand. We have to get back to the farm in a few days, so I won’t be around to help later. You said you wanted to get started.’
Rachael threw her hands up. ‘I don’t remember what I said! It was her funeral, Tess. Besides, I was here with her the last ten years. I know what she wanted. If you have to go home, that’s fine. I can manage.’
‘Oh, I see. This is about me choosing to go with Dad when we were kids.’ Tess folded her arms, bringing out a well-worn bickering point like a favourite toy. ‘Well, someone had to. It doesn’t mean I didn’t care about her. And I’m just trying to make things easier for you.’
Tess delivered her speech without a shred of sadness. Rachael was utterly unable to understand how her sister was navigating the grief so easily.
‘It’s not about that,’ she said.
Though she couldn’t help remembering standing beside her mother on the day Tess and her father drove away. Rachael had pressed herself against her mother, her eight-year-old eyes unbelieving. Marion had squeezed her fiercely, tears in her eyes, though she’d held her voice calm and level. ‘She’s still your sister,’ she’d said. ‘This will always be home. She’ll be back one day. She’ll be back.’ Over and over the same words, as if they had the power to make it true.
Now, Tess pursed her lips. ‘Well, can I at least make some lists for you? There’s all the medical hire equipment that needs to be returned, and someone should throw out all the tablets.’
‘Why would I need a list?’
‘So you don’t forget.’
Rachael stared. Was it possible that Tess still thought of her as a dreamy girl with her sketchbook and pencils, often late and forgetful? Yes, that’s what she had been, once. But she’d worked very hard in her last years of school; and then had come ten years of looking after her mother’s appointments, medicines and meals, toilets and showers, and the farm. All that had changed Rachael forever. Tess simply hadn’t been here to see it.
‘I’m not going to forget,’ she said.
‘You forgot what you said yesterday.’
Rachael gritted her teeth. All she wanted today was to be left alone, to stare down the fields or wander round the house, to be as lost as she needed to be. Choosing retreat, she abandoned her tea and headed for her room.
Tess followed. ‘Well, what about cleaning out the fridge? There’s tonnes of food from the wake that needs organising.’
‘Then take it home for Christmas.’
‘Speaking of Christmas, I think you should come up to Dubbo. You shouldn’t be here all by yourself. Or, a better idea. I’ve got someone I want you to meet.’
Rachael spun back. ‘Why would I want to be fixed up with anyone?’
‘Who said anything about fixing up? It’s Joel’s cousin, nice man. He’s bought a farm near Orange and he doesn’t know anyone yet. Family’s all in WA, so he’s going to be alone too. You can talk shop and keep each other company.’
Rachael rubbed her face. She hadn’t slept much this week, her mother’s last days in the hospital replaying in her thoughts at night. Worries about the farm and the future were also accumulating like fallen leaves. Couldn’t Tess understand how tired she was, how upset? How the smallest things seemed like mountains?
She started back down the hall. ‘Will you please just leave it alone? We only just buried Mum.’
‘I thought it would take your mind off everything, and besides it’s time you found a man. There’s been no one since Matthew.’
Rachael froze with that same sick feeling she’d had yesterday, as if his name had dropped a cage around her body, one that was so tight she could barely draw breath. She steadied herself on the wall. Retreat wasn’t enough; she needed to escape. The door onto the rear verandah was right there. She suddenly found herself outside, boots on, striding through acres of field, mowing down a row of cut stalks in her haste.
‘I’m just trying to help!’ Tess yelled at her back.
Rachael didn’t turn around. Out under the sky, she pulled out her hair band and sucked in the warming air, trying to shake off the shock. Finding that Matthew’s name could still hurt was an unpleasant surprise. She thought she had packed him away so deep in her heart that he couldn’t affect her any more.
She strode south, trying to lose herself in her steps, and avoiding the long field where a dip in the ground lay hidden in the wheat stalks. Sadly, avoidance didn’t help. If she closed her eyes, she could still imagine lying in that hollow with Matthew, the earth cool against her arms, his body warm beside her. She had lost hours lying against his chest, twisting his curly brown hair in her fingers, staring into his eyes, and listening to his plans for them both. She’d been so excited by the prospects he’d effortlessly sown in her mind: of university, and then coming home to work and build a home together. Dreams that were still tied to the earth and the baked-straw scent of the fields, to everything Rachael was.
He’d broken off and given her his broad smile. ‘I’m going on.’
‘No,’ she’d said. ‘I want to hear more.’
So he’d brushed his thumbs across her cheeks, cradled her face, and said, ‘I’ll love you forever.’ Fierce and certain, he’d sealed his promise with a kiss and her heart had lifted with joy.
Rachael wrenched her mind back with an exasperated curse. That same straw scent was in her nose, but everything else had changed. They’d both been seventeen when he’d made that promise, imagining a different life than the one that had happened. And yet she knew she would never love anyone like that again.
She walked until she hit the south fence and still the ache clamped around her like a too-tight belt. The sun was behind a cloud, shooting beams of filtered orange across the sky, and birds wheeled and skimmed low over the stalks. Across the highway in a neighbour’s field, a combine turned a lazy circle at the end of a row, the distant grumble of its engines competing with sporadic traffic. Rachael lifted the hair off her sweating neck, but couldn’t put it up again; she’d lost the band somewhere in the field. She leaned on a fence post to pick the prickles off her socks, then chewed the remaining nail on her left hand as a truck rumbled down the highway towards Parkes. Another passed a minute later. Rachael lingered, watching.
The next truck had cowboy western murals painted over its cab. Then came two caravans, and two sedans. A sheep truck was next; the driver waved. Then she spotted a green Corolla flying down the highway. Rachael straightened. Just as she made out the mismatched door panel, the car flicked its lights at her and ploughed onto the hard shoulder.
The driver’s door flew open and Rachael almost cried again, this time in gratitude. Sammy was here.
‘I thought that was you,’ Sammy called, negotiating the slope to the fence, the breeze ruffling her choppy fringe. She had a blonde pixie cut, dimpled cheeks and long eyelashes. ‘What are you doing out here?’
‘Avoiding the house.’
Sammy raised her eyebrows. ‘Tess?’
‘She wants to get into Mum’s stuff.’ Rachael’s voice caught.
‘She’s being really awful. I don’t understand how she can be so…’
‘Yeah. She’s worse than normal.’
Sammy hugged Rachael awkwardly across the fence. She was wearing her black work pants and blue blouse with Parkes Country Motor Inn stitched over the breast pocket.
‘Are you on your way to work?’ Rachael asked, confused. It was far too early for a shift at the motel; Sammy was more likely to have been at her second job, at the bakery.
‘Later. I came to see how you are. I brought food.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘I know. But I bet your nieces and nephew will be. Come on, I’ll give you a ride back to the house.’
Rachael glanced over her shoulder, gauging how long it would take to walk, then bent to slide through the fence. ‘Probably a good thing. Tess might have decided to clean things out on her own.’
‘I’m sure she wouldn’t,’ Sammy said. ‘But leave Tess to me. You’ve got enough to deal with.’
Charlotte Nash grew up obsessed with horses and good stories, and is now a bestselling author of contemporary romantic novels. She came to writing after an eclectic past in engineering and medicine, and loves writing about brave women in testing circumstances, finding love and themselves. She lives in a cosy Brisbane cottage with her family. The Paris Wedding is her fifth novel, released 27 June 2017.