Authors: Holly Ford
A COMPELLING RURAL ROMANCE SET IN THE RUGGED HIGH COUNTRY OF NEW ZEALAND’S SOUTH ISLAND.
Four generations of the Black family have farmed Blackpeak Station. Next in line, or so she believes, is Charlotte Black, stubborn as rock and unbiddable as the weather. But standing in her way are 150 years of tradition, an older brother, and a father who believes that daughters run families, not farms.
To make her childhood dream of owning the family property come true, she’ll have to be as tough as the mountains themselves. There can be no room for romance in Charlotte’s life. Or so she thinks, until it arrives at her door.
Can she have both love and land? And which should she choose? Can Charlotte ever learn to trust her heart?
John Black sat his five-year-old daughter on the bonnet of the old Land Rover and leaned beside her. She kicked her tiny gumboots happily against the hot radiator. Together, they surveyed the tussock land spreading away below them.
Charlotte Black pointed. ‘There’s the homestead.’
Far off, a roof glinted among green trees. Her father nodded.
‘There’s the woolshed.’
‘And there’s the road.’ The only true straight line, cutting thin and black across the edges of their sight. Charlotte finished her familiar litany with the traditional question. ‘How far does our land go, Daddy?’
John Black smiled briefly down at his daughter and then squinted into the afternoon sun.
‘From the road there, to the tops of the alps over here …’
They looked back over their shoulders at the mountains rising behind them, jagged rock sheathed in ice and snow.
‘And from the top of Johnson’s Hill up there …’ — they looked to the north — ‘… down to Black’s Ridge there …’ He waited expectantly.
‘As far as the eye can see!’ chanted Charlotte. A little wind swept through the tussock. She pushed her hair back out of her eyes. ‘And great-great-granddad Black stood here on the Peak, didn’t he, Daddy?’
‘And he said “
this land is mine”.’ She spread out her arms, eyes shining brightly. ‘And he made Blackpeak Station. And he lived here forever and ever, and his sons, and their sons and …’ She lost count and stopped. ‘Is that you yet, Daddy?’
‘And their sons, yes, that’s me.’ John Black looked out contentedly over his vast run of land. ‘And now Nick, my son.’
‘And me,’ finished his daughter.
‘Yes, and you.’ He ruffled her dark hair. ‘You won’t live here forever, though.’
The kicking stopped. ‘Why not?’
He looked down, laughing, into the small worried face. ‘You’ll grow up, and get married, and move away.’
‘I won’t!’ cried Charlotte indignantly.
Her father smiled. ‘We’ll see.’ He lifted her up, and set her feet gently back down on the ground. ‘Come on, let’s go fix that fence, eh?’
Charlotte Black followed behind her father, stretching her little legs to try and match his long stride.
‘Won’t,’ she chanted under her breath, stamping her
hard into the tussock. ‘Won’t, won’t, won’t, won’t, won’t.’
Squatting on her heels in the tussock, Charlotte grasped the tiny legs and pulled slowly and firmly. At last, the little body slid easily from its mother, wriggling as it hit the shallow soil of Blackpeak Station. Charlotte wiped her hands, first on the woolly back of the ewe and then on her already filthy moleskins, and watched as the ewe turned to inspect her lamb, licking life into its limbs.
Charlotte looked at her watch. She was late for dinner again. She made her way back to the ancient Land Rover, crunched it into first gear, and began the bumpy ride back down to the homestead. The track was narrow and rocky, dropping steeply even in these relatively tame descendants of the mountains beyond. Behind her, a thick fur of tussock
stretched up and over the bones of the alps, the tawny hills spread like a jumble of lions dozing under the thin spring sun. She could almost hear the snow melting up on the tops. Through the open window, the sound of running water from the screes above and the gully below trickled into the cab.
Not trusting to the fading drum brakes, Charlotte doubled the clutch and slammed the Land Rover into first gear as the track plunged into the last corner. Miraculously, the handbrake held above the final gate — but only until she was halfway through opening it, at which point the old truck decided to make its own way through to the other side. Charlotte scurried out of its path and closed the gate behind it. Luckily, the paddock on the other side was flat enough that she barely had to jog to catch up with the Land Rover again. Tinks, her heading dog, jumped down from the flatdeck to help, circling the truck and making sure Charlotte gained the cab before leaping back onboard.
Charlotte found second gear, pulled the door to and returned to the track, where, for the first time that morning, she could finally coax the Land Rover up into third. Through the filthy windscreen, she could see the homestead a kilometre or so up ahead and, away to the side, the small figure of her mother hanging out washing. Charlotte swore under her breath and hoped Andrea, who didn’t approve of people so much as taking their hands off the steering wheel, hadn’t seen her chasing the truck down.
Turning into the home paddock, she left the Land Rover ticking hotly in the big bay shed, where it joined an evolutionary line-up of dirty farm vehicles in varying states of distress. She put Tinks away and made her way across the gravel towards the homestead. Caddy, her mother’s fat chocolate Labrador, waddled round from the verandah to sniff appreciatively at her gumboots. As she shed her boots
and bush shirt in the back porch and washed her hands in the laundry, the smell of roast mutton drifted under the kitchen door, making it seem a very long time since breakfast.
Charlotte opened the door to be enveloped in warmth. Andrea’s trophy woodburning stove was doing such a good job they’d had to open the windows. At the old wooden table, her father and Nick were already eating, while her mother bustled at the bench, scraping the last of the gravy out of the roasting pan into the jug.
‘There you are!’ Andrea snapped. ‘I was getting worried.’
‘One of the stud ewes was in a bit of trouble.’
Her father’s head rose abruptly. ‘You get it sorted out?’
Right, thought Charlotte. Now he cared. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It was breeched. Just a single. They’re fine.’
‘Radio your mother next time you’re running late.’
Her father’s voice carried little reproach, but still Charlotte felt needled. He would have bollocked Nick, but he couldn’t even be bothered to tell her off. That’s how much it mattered what she did.
Andrea put the gravy jug on the table and sat down with a heavy sigh.
‘What was that about up at the gate?’ she asked Charlotte, handing down the potatoes. ‘Has the handbrake gone on the Land Rover again?’
Crap. So her mother had seen. ‘Yeah, I dunno, I guess it just slipped,’ said Charlotte, eyes on the serving spoon. ‘It’s okay, it didn’t matter.’
‘John, you’ve got to do something about that thing. It’s a death trap. I’ve told you, I don’t want the kids driving round in it anymore.’
Charlotte looked across the table at Nick. They both rolled their eyes. ‘It’s fine, Mum, really.’
‘It’s not fine,’ Andrea persisted. ‘What if
slipped and it had run you over?’
‘Leave it alone, Andy,’ ordered John Black. ‘She isn’t stupid.’
He pushed his empty plate away and leaned back, stretching out his long legs under the table. ‘You change the oil on that quad bike yesterday?’ he asked Nick.
Charlotte watched her brother’s eyes narrow.
. ‘Didn’t get time,’ he said, with an admirable effort at nonchalance, given that he had to know what was coming.
‘Time?’ their father spat. ‘You want to talk to me about
? You had time to sit on your bum at that computer all afternoon, didn’t you? Time to twitter away to your flash uni mates about how boring we are down here.’
,’ put in Andrea. ‘And he does have to study.’
‘For God’s sake, Andy, let him speak for himself.’
There was a long silence. Charlotte shot another glance at Nick, who was sitting slumped in his chair, his eyes on the pepper grinder.
Nick sighed, sounding every bit as bored as their father suspected. ‘What do you want me to say?’
John Black shook his head. ‘It’s what I want you to
, mate. Man up. Start taking the lead now and then. It’s your future we’re all here working our guts out for — it wouldn’t kill you to show an interest.’
Abruptly, Andrea began clearing plates. Charlotte took a deep breath. She could feel Nick not looking at her. It was hard to believe sometimes, when her father came out with things like that, that he wasn’t trying to hurt her — except that he’d have to notice her first, and she couldn’t accuse him of that. Nick was right, their father was just a wrecking ball.
No hard feelings, mate, just doing a job. Unlucky
for you that you got in the way
. Still, occasionally the urge to throw the contents of the gravy jug in his face became almost overwhelming.
‘Charlotte?’ Her mother, perhaps guessing her thoughts, interrupted them briskly. ‘Will you put the jug on, please?’
With one last glare at Nick, her father gave up and, pulling the armchair closer to the range, settled down to read yesterday’s paper.
Waiting for the jug to boil, Charlotte watched her mother, so neat and petite and blonde, as she moved around stacking plates and buttering blueberry muffins. No one ever guessed that they were related — Andrea had passed on those soft, rounded, American-soap-star good looks to Nick, but withheld them from her daughter. Charlotte herself took after her father, tall and angular, her hair as dark as her surname. The spitting image, in fact — so everyone said — of her grandfather, old Jock Black, with her hawkish bones and her wide-set eyes, such a startling glacier blue they tended to make people lose their trains of thought halfway through a sentence.
For years, Charlotte had thought that her mother and Nick were the odd ones out: fair-haired Nick, with his styling wax and penchant for shoes; honey-and-ash-tinted Andrea, who even now, doing the dishes on a Sunday in the middle of lambing season, was giving off a whiff of Chanel No.5 above the mutton and onions and woodsmoke. It wasn’t until she got to boarding school that Charlotte had realised, watching the day girls’ mothers roar up in their spotless SUVs, a whirl of expensive highlights, Trelise Cooper bags and bichon frisés, that Nick and Andrea fitted in perfectly — just not here, in Blackpeak’s kitchen.
‘Teapot, darling, please,’ said Andrea, putting the muffins
down. ‘It’s so much nicer.’
‘You’ll be wanting to get on with that bike,’ said John, as Nick reached for the plate. ‘You can bleed the brakes on the Land Rover, too, while you’re at it.’
With a final sigh and roll of his eyes, Nick grabbed a muffin and left. Charlotte liked the way he didn’t bother to slam the door. Nick always acted as if their father’s bullying was beneath his notice — an attitude, true or not, that rarely failed to get under John Black’s skin.
Charlotte drank her tea and, leaving Andrea to the dishes, got out of her mother’s kitchen as quickly as she could. In the shed, she found Nick on his back underneath the hoisted-up quad bike, an old sack protecting his blond hair from the mud and sparrow droppings scattered liberally over the floor.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘I brought you another muffin.’
‘Thanks.’ Nick slid out and sat up. ‘Oh well,’ he said, glancing round, ‘fifty-two hours down. Only forty-eight to go.’
‘Hey, less with the hour count, huh? Not everyone’s in a hurry to go back to uni.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t know how you stand it.’
Charlotte smiled. ‘You really can’t wait to get back to the bright lights of Palmerston North?’
Nick swallowed his muffin and shot her an odd little look. ‘Yeah, something like that,’ he said.
Charlotte had just got off the quad bike to close the sticking second gate on the north-east track when she saw it happen. Away to the west and high above, halfway up the steep track zigzagging to the top of Black Peak, on the trickiest part of the climb, the Land Rover — a load of fence posts strapped to its deck — stopped abruptly. Uh-oh. Nick must
have stalled the engine. Unless the handbrake held, that was going to be tricky.
Almost instantly, the old truck started to roll backwards. Shit, hit the footbrake, Nick! But the Land Rover kept moving. Fuck, the brakes must have failed. And the truck was slipping fast now, gathering speed under the weight of all that timber. Charlotte’s stomach went cold.
‘Get out,’ she said aloud. Oh, Nick. Oh God, no … ‘Jump!’
But there wasn’t any time. The Land Rover was over the edge of the track and tumbling down the flank of Black Peak, landing sickeningly again and again on the roof of the cab, each roll like a blow to her stomach. As the truck toppled over the side of the final bluff, Charlotte closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, the Land Rover was gone, out of sight, lost somewhere in the gully. The hills were quiet, the morning still. Overhead, an oystercatcher called. Somewhere a lamb bleated for its mother. For a second, Charlotte stood there, clutching the old wooden gate. And then she rushed back to the quad.
Either side of the track, the familiar paddocks flew by like something out of a bad dream. The quad bike didn’t seem to go fast enough. Getting through the gates took an eternity, though it didn’t occur to her for an instant not to close them.
Finally, the homestead loomed through the trees. At the back door, Charlotte hauled on the brakes and the bike fishtailed to a halt in a hail of gravel. She was vaulting off it almost before it had stopped, and in her hurry she almost ran into the figure coming out of the door, head down, zipping up a bush shirt.
‘Hey, Charles,’ said Nick, casually removing the slice of toast from his mouth, ‘what’s up?’
Charlotte stared at him. She could feel her legs beginning to shake. ‘Who’s in the Land Rover?’
‘Dad is.’ Nick rolled his eyes. ‘I had a couple of emails to write. He got in a tizz and went without me.’
‘The brake line was worn.’ Nick watched the ambulance pull slowly away from the homestead. ‘I saw it yesterday. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t tell him.’
‘It wasn’t your fault, mate.’ Rex laid a hand on Nick’s shoulder. He’d been with the rescue team all morning, and he looked shattered. Rex had been her father’s head shepherd for more than twenty years — Charlotte had never really thought of the two of them as being friends, but she guessed, in a way, they were. ‘These things …’ Rex shook his head. ‘Sometimes they … well, they just happen.’
‘Around here they do.’ Looking up suddenly, her mother glared through the tears. ‘This place was always an accident waiting to happen. The
risks you all take.’ Her voice broke. ‘Why couldn’t he just be careful?’
Kath, Rex’s wife, put her arm around Andrea’s shoulders. Nick walked off, following aimlessly in the ambulance’s tracks, his shoulders hunched, his hands deep in his pockets. He hadn’t been able to keep still all day. Banned from the accident scene, Charlotte, Nick and Andrea had had a long wait in Blackpeak’s kitchen. Not that there’d ever really been any doubt about what the search-and-rescue effort was going to find.
Charlotte followed her brother down the drive. Nick stopped, leaning on a fence post, as the ambulance
‘I never could do anything right.’
Charlotte bit her lip. What was she supposed to say to
that? ‘Hey. Dad was proud of you. Underneath, I mean.’
Nick snorted. ‘Oh, come off it, Charles. No, he wasn’t. And he was never going to be, either.’
She put her arm around him.
‘If he wasn’t such a dick,’ Nick went on, ‘he would have been proud of you. You were the son he never had.’ He shook his head. ‘You know, he never — not even once — stopped to ask me what I wanted?’