Rocking Horse Hill
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Who do you trust when a stranger threatens to tear your family apart?
When Emily Wallace-Jones's brother Digby arrives home with a secretive new fiancée, no one knows how to react. The Wallace-Jones are old-money rural aristocracy and Felicity Townsend is from a very different side of the tracks.
But Em is determined not to treat Felicity with the same teenage snobbery that tore apart her relationship with her first love, Josh Sinclair. A man who has now sauntered sexily back into Em's life and given her a chance for redemption.
As Felicity settles in, suspicions are raised about her intentions toward Em's beloved Rocking Horse Hill, the historic family property that Digby owns but has promised will be Em's home for as long as she wishes. Though worried for her future, Em sides with her brother and Felicity, until a near tragedy sets in motion a chain of events that will change the family forever.
An emotional story of family turmoil and second-chance love played out against the dramatic landscape of rural South Australia.
Release date: April 10, 2017
Print pages: 365
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Rocking Horse Hill
Car headlights shot yellowy-orange streaks over the slick bitumen of Levenham’s main street. The footpath remained empty, bar the occasional person dashing for their car, head obscured by a rain jacket hood or low-held umbrella.
Hunched against the wind, Emily Wallace-Jones tucked her leather satchel tighter under her arm and finished locking PaperPassion’s shop door. If it weren’t for her innate sense of duty she’d have closed up and headed to Camrick and a hearty gossip with Granny B an hour ago, but customers had unexpectedly come in and Em still had rent and other expenses to cover. Nor did she want to develop a reputation as unreliable. Levenham might be home to seventeen thousand people, but word spread just as fast here as it did in a small village, and being a Wallace put her at a big enough disadvantage as it was. In a town where hardship and wealth maintained an uneasy coexistence, old resentments and jealousies lingered.
Rain sleeted the windscreen of Em’s four-wheel drive as she turned into Camrick’s drive. The Wallace’s 125-year-old manor, where Em’s mother, Adrienne, brother Digby and Granny B resided in their distinct quarters, was built on a slight rise several streets back from the centre of town. Night cloaked the property’s full grandeur but the lights illuminating the old carriageway exposed part of its handsome front. Compared to some of the rendered brick mansions cropping up around Levenham, Camrick wasn’t overly large but, where they had modernity and size, Camrick faced the world with history and majesty.
The house was two storeys. A large bay extended out the left side, decorated columns splitting the three delicately arched windows of each floor. From the bay, the walls sank inwards, protected by a large bull-nosed verandah that wrapped the remaining front and side of the house. The iron-laced second-floor balcony was Granny B’s favourite perch. No matter the weather, each evening after dinner she could be found surveying the land and sky through her one good eye, thin cigar in one hand, cut-crystal tumbler of whisky in the other.
The lights in Granny B’s rooms were out. Em braked and leaned forward to inspect the stables. The entrance to Digby’s lodgings was dark, the wall lights either side of the converted stables’ pale blue door unlit. A dull yellow glow peeked from between the blinds of the far right upstairs window – Digby’s bedroom. Warmth began to fill her. He was back.
Tuesday-night dinners were a tradition in the Wallace family, an anticipated and fun event. A chance to keep them knitted together, to quickly catch any pull or hint of familial unravelling. When one of them was missing, they all felt it. Even during Em’s years at university, no matter what adventure or stress was occurring, Tuesday night would bring a wistfulness for Camrick. Wistfulness soon followed by a crushing yearning for her beloved Rocking Horse Hill.
A gust of wind rocked the car. Granny B’s elegant outline was silhouetted against Camrick’s rear door. Her grandmother beckoned, the gesture impatient. Em grabbed her bag and the carton of fresh eggs she’d made up before work and made the dash.
Granny B held out a powdery cheek for a kiss. She wore her short hair in its usual style, set crimped and parted on one side, with the waves held in check by half a can of hairspray and a pale metal clip that blended in with her silvery-white hair. She was tall, Em’s height, straight-backed and as skinny as a film star. All length and bone with a solid air of haughtiness and privilege. Em had been advised her entire life that she took after her grandmother and had not once minded the comparison. Granny B oozed old-style glamour.
‘Ghastly weather, isn’t it?’ said Granny B. ‘How’s Muffet coping?’
‘A little stiff but the tablets seem to be helping. She’s settled in to the house pretty well. If she needs to go outside she comes and wakes me, but that’s only happened twice so far. Must have a good bladder.’
‘Unlike the rest of us oldies,’ said Granny B with a sigh.
Em hooked her arm through her grandmother’s. ‘You’re not old. You’re grandly mature.’
Granny B smiled. ‘I am rather, aren’t I? Incontinence pad and all.’ She patted Em’s hand. ‘Now, come. Digby’s got his knickers in a twist about something and your mother and I are anxious to discover the cause. Refused to answer any questions and then scuttled off to the front lounge when we wouldn’t be put off. What does the boy expect? Away all that time without once coming home. Barely even rang.’
‘Maybe he met a girl.’
‘Or boy?’ asked Granny B, lasering in on Em with one of her special looks. Chronic open-angle glaucoma had destroyed all but the central vision in Granny B’s right eye, causing her to peer at people with unnerving sharpness.
‘Would it matter?’
‘Not to me.’ Her eyes sparkled. ‘In fact, it’d be rather serendipitous to see the family wealth pass down the matriarchal line again. Wallace men have had it too easy for too long.’
Granny B steered Em down the softly lit hall, their footsteps echoing off the polished floorboards. A worn Persian runner had once carpeted the hall, which ran the width of the house before hitting a T, one turn leading left to the front wing, the other to the upper floor, but Adrienne had declared the runner a relic of the past and pulled it up. There were plans for carpet and a repaint. Em had always loved Camrick’s old-fashioned classicism but her style-conscious mother hankered for modernity, and since Uncle James’s death had been slowly transforming the decor.
‘Here she is,’ announced Granny B as they turned into the kitchen.
Adrienne was at the stove, stirring a pot of something that wafted savoury deliciousness. A light sheen of moisture disturbed her make-up and caused the fine tendrils of her piled-up dark hair to hang limp around her face.
Like all Wallace women, bar herself, Em’s mother had an ‘A’ name. Granny B’s was Audrey but a clash with Em’s other grandmother, who shared the name, led the children to refer to their grandmothers as Granny A and Granny B. The titles had stuck. Em would have been Amelia except for a last-minute quarrel between her parents – one of many until their divorce – saw the name tradition forfeited, and baby Amelia was instead christened Emily, much to most of the Wallace family’s displeasure.
‘Sorry I’m late. I got caught up in the Ballad,’ said Em, referring to her latest calligraphy project, an illuminated edition of G. K. Chesterton’s epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse.
Em’s handmade books helped while away quiet hours in the shop and winter-deadened nights at Rocking Horse Hill and, though it had never been her intention, her hobby was beginning to make money. The last book she’d put up for auction on the Internet – a beautifully scripted and illustrated leather-bound edition of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days – had fetched close to a thousand dollars. People were asking for more, pressing for commission work. So far she’d refused, afraid the pressure would spoil the creative pleasure. Books would come, but at a pace of her own choosing, and driven by inspiration instead of behest. While the extra money helped, Em had proven for several years now that life was survivable on the shop’s small profits and income from the share portfolio she’d inherited from Uncle James. Digby allowing her to live at Rocking Horse Hill rent-free assisted a great deal too.
She set down the eggs, smiling as she walked over to her mother. The height gene had skipped Adrienne and Uncle James’ generation, though the Wallace’s famous fine bone structure remained. Em inspected the pot of mushroom sauce simmering at the back of the stove, breathing it in. ‘Porcini?’
‘A few. It’s a mix, mainly. Dansley’s had some Swiss browns so I threw a handful of those in with the flat tops.’
‘Smells amazing.’ A ridged cast-iron grill plate was heating on the front hobs, ready for the fillet steaks that were warming to room temperature on a plate nearby. Em counted them. Her mother’s boyfriend, Samuel, must be coming. ‘Anything I can help with?’
‘It’s all done. Go through and say hello to your brother while I cook these steaks. See if you can’t worm whatever secret he’s hiding out of him. Your grandmother’s fit to burst.’
‘And you’re not?’
Adrienne smiled as she left.
Her brother was sitting sideways on the wide sill of the bay window with one leg drawn up and hugged to his chest, staring vacantly outwards as rain pelted the glass and slid in glittery streaks down the pane. The open fire was crackling enticingly, filling the room with warmth and the smell of wood. At the door’s opening, Adrienne’s drowsy Siamese cat Peaches slid from Uncle James’ wingback leather chair – a piece so handsome and well made even Adrienne couldn’t bring herself to dump it – to resettle near the hearth.
Em leaned against the doorjamb with her arms crossed, wondering if Digby had even registered her presence. ‘Very Heathcliff.’
Digby turned his head. ‘Is that good or bad?’
Unlike Em, who had always adored reading and gone on to gain an Honours degree in English from Flinders University, Digby was a left-brained science nerd, who would rather read a paper on plant pollination than Wuthering Heights.
‘Depends how crazy you turn.’ Em crossed the room to join him on the sill. She pushed his leg aside and settled down, pressing her shoulder affectionately against his. ‘So, dear brother of mine, I’m guessing good times were had in Adelaide?’
A flush crept up Digby’s neck and bloomed pinkly across his cheeks. He crossed and uncrossed his legs at the ankle, tilting forward as if unsure whether to stand or stay sitting. ‘They were.’
Em studied him closer. He’d been away on an intensive course at Adelaide University’s Roseworthy campus, north of the city, for three weeks. Not an unusual occurrence. As a horticulturalist with the Department of Agriculture, professional development was an important part of his job, but this was the first time he’d not come home for weekends. Adelaide was only four hours or so away, Roseworthy perhaps an hour further. A reasonable drive, but that had never stopped him previously.
He glanced at his watch, twisted the band and frowned at the rain-striped window. Two words for three weeks away. This was going to take some effort.
‘Care to fill me in?’
Digby’s gaze flicked across the room. Em followed suit and smiled as she spotted Samuel, paused and slightly stooping beneath the doorframe.
‘Not interrupting, am I?’
‘No,’ said Digby, ‘not at all.’ He leaned closer to Em, his voice low and tainted with smugness. ‘All will be revealed after dinner.’
‘It had better be or you’ll have Gran to contend with.’
Samuel poured himself a drink from the trolley beside the back wall and together they stood near the fire, bemoaning the weather and discussing Samuel’s service club’s initiatives. He was an attractive man, with salt-and-pepper hair and a rangy body kept fit by morning jogs and golf. He was also a consummate facilitator. The sort of man who went out of his way to relax people – confident and charismatic, but without Em’s father’s overconfident swagger – and his love for Adrienne was unwavering.
Sadly, the adoration in his blue-grey eyes for Em’s mother was tempered by unhealable sorrow. Years before he’d lost his only son to meningitis. For any man the sense of helplessness would be acute, but for a retired radiographer, a man who’d lived his life surrounded by medical science and its wonders, the loss must have held a sharper edge. Which was why, Em supposed, he gave so much of his time to children’s services.
Granny B called them to dinner, lingering beside Em to ask if she’d discovered Digby’s news. Her mouth puckered upon learning they’d all have to wait.
In an unusual display of fortitude, Digby ignored his grandmother’s unsubtle prods and kept his counsel throughout the meal. Samuel filled in the conversational gaps with details of his upcoming trip to Timor-Leste, before discussion moved on to Adrienne’s favourite topic of local arts funding, ensuring a lively debate with Granny B and Em over what field should take priority. Em allowed herself a glass of red wine, noting, as did her mother and grandmother, that Digby drank nothing and that his attention was constantly flicking to the dining room’s cherry wood mantel clock.
‘Well,’ said Granny B, dabbing at her mouth with her napkin and looking at Digby, ‘we have now finished dinner. What’s this news of yours?’
Digby glanced at the clock again. Nearly eight. Em would have to leave for Rocking Horse Hill soon. Even with her heavily blanketed porch basket her darling collie, Muffy, would be feeling the cold. Plus Em needed to lock up the chooks and Chelsea, throw a few sheaves of hay to her horse Lodestone, and check on Kicki and Cutie. The tough little donkeys usually looked after themselves but they didn’t have cold-beating rugs like Lod. With the weather this inclement she might need to bring them in.
‘Digby?’ asked Adrienne, sliding her hand across the table towards his. ‘What’s the matter?’
The clock began its Big Ben toll. Granny B glared at it as it struck the hours down.
Another sound joined the chime.
Frowning, Em looked at her mother. ‘Is that the doorbell?’
‘I’ll answer it,’ said Samuel, laying down his napkin and half-rising.
Samuel stilled. Everyone’s gaze fixed on Digby who quickly scraped his chair back and jerked upright, his napkin falling from his knees to the floor, unnoticed. He stared towards the dining room door with an overexcited, almost fearful look in his eyes.
The clock ceased its chime.
He swallowed, cast around the room and gestured towards the exit. ‘I’ll get it.’
For a few seconds, Em, Adrienne, Granny B and Samuel could only gape at the empty doorway before regarding one another with acute puzzlement.
Samuel was the first to speak. ‘Well, whoever our visitor is, I’m guessing they’re for Digby.’
‘Shh,’ ordered Granny B, her head cocked to listen.
Voices drifted. One deep, the other soft and barely audible. Then Digby and his guest ceased talking, leaving the sound of the ticking clock, the distant drum of rain on the roof, and footsteps on the timber floor, slowly coming closer.
His cheeks blooming with colour, Digby stepped into the room and halted, alone, then inhaled deeply and straightened his shoulders. ‘I’d like you all to meet someone.’ He took another breath and turned slightly, his arm held out. ‘Someone very special.’
A few heartbeats passed, then a small slim blonde woman with her long hair pulled back into a girlish ponytail stepped into his embrace, and together they took another few steps into the room. She smiled hesitantly at Adrienne, then around the table at Granny B, Em and Samuel. Finally her gaze turned back to Digby.
He smiled at her for a moment, holding her like a fabulously rare, priceless and prized piece of art: covetous, careful and proud.
‘Mum, Gran, Em, Samuel, I’d like you to meet Felicity Townsend.’ He raised his chin. ‘My fiancée.’
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