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Authors: Nicki Edwards

The Peppercorn Project

BOOK: The Peppercorn Project
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About
The Peppercorn Project

One heartbroken woman. One bitter cop. One community to save them.

 

After the tragic death of her husband, single mum Isabelle Cassidy is bereft and broke. When she hears about The Peppercorn Project – a scheme that offers affordable rent in the tiny but vibrant town of Stony Creek – Issie sees it as her family’s best chance at a fresh start.

 

Newly single police officer Matt Robertson moved to Stony Creek to lick his wounds after a bitter divorce. Wanting only peace and quiet, Matt is against the Project, seeing it as a threat to the peace he’s found in the country town – until he meets Issie. Despite himself, Matt is drawn to the widow and feels inexplicably protective of her fragile family.

 

Just when Issie begins to imagine a future with Matt, an accident proves how far she has to go before she can move beyond her grief. But the citizens of Stony Creek won’t rest until they see these two broken souls find a new beginning, together.

 

Can Issie move beyond the pain of her past and entrust Matt with her family, and her heart?

 

A gorgeous rural romance for fans of Fiona McArthur, Rachael Johns and Fiona McCallum.

 

To Tim. For everything.

 

 


Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.’

Anne Roiphe

Prologue

‘Help!’

The shout hauled Isabelle Cassidy from her state of lazy slumber. She opened her eyes slowly and blinked in the bright sun. Had she imagined it? She propped herself up on one elbow and the sand shifted beneath her towel as she changed position. Shading her eyes with one hand, she scanned the beach, the rocks, the water. Nothing. She sank back. She must have dreamt it.

Stretching languorously, she yawned. Overhead, cloudless blue skies stretched to eternity. Her favourite kind of summer day. Her book lay closed on the sand beside her, unfinished. She’d forgotten to mark her place. She rubbed her eyes. She remembered watching Dan and Fletcher paddling out, remembered reading her book, remembered closing her eyes briefly. She definitely didn’t remember falling asleep.


Help me
!’

The cry came again, louder this time. Isabelle shot up, shaking her right arm in an attempt to relieve the sudden sharp stab of pins and needles. The yelling persisted, and she looked around, trying to work out which direction the sound was travelling. The hot northerly wind had picked up the words and flung them out across the crashing waves. Were her ears playing tricks?

The shout came a third time. Insistent. Scared.

Maybe it
was
real.

She sprang to her feet, screwing her eyes against the glare reflecting off the white sand, she squinted down the beach. A boy was sprinting across the sand towards her.

Definitely not a dream.

He motioned wildly for her to come to him and as he drew closer, she cried out in shock. ‘Fletcher!’

‘Mum! Mum! Help! You have to help. It’s Dad!’

Panic reached up, grabbed her by the throat and squeezed tight. At first she couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak. Then the last lazy remnants of sleep fled and reality seized.

Bolting after Fletcher, she followed him to where Dan lay face up on the wet sand. She saw the familiar bright geometric pattern of his board shorts and swallowed back the bile. His dark chest hair stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. Skin like a prune – wrinkled and grey, like a little kid who’d spent too long in the bath.

As the waves obstinately pummelled them, she dropped to his side and her knees sank deep into the wet sand. Another wave washed over them both as she felt for a pulse. The next surge of water brought foam and sand and seaweed. She swept Dan’s sandy blond hair from his face so she could see his eyes. They stared up at her, unblinking.

It was then she screamed. Shaking his upper arm first, she rocked his body from side to side, stunned by the icy-coldness of his skin beneath her fingers.

‘Dan! Can you hear me? Open your eyes. Squeeze my hand.’

No sound. No reply.

Nothing.

Icy cold dread began a slow and steady crawl up her spine.

She shouted. She yelled. She cried out. She begged Dan to respond. Her voice blended with Fletcher’s shrill cries.

‘Do something, Mum!’ Fletcher’s voice sounded cracked and scratchy, like an old vinyl record. It tore at her heart, kicking her brain into gear. She was a nurse. She knew what to do.

She began compressions. One. Two. Three. Up to thirty like she had been taught. Then two breaths. Dan’s mouth tasted of salt. His lips were stiff. Unmoving. Once more panic circled, seeking a place to settle. She counted aloud, keeping in time with the stupid tune in her head.
Staying Alive. Staying Alive. One, two, three, four.
The fingers of one hand interlaced with the other, the heel of her hand pushing down on her husband’s bare chest. Two thirds of the chest wall had to be compressed.
Or is that one-third?

Black dots formed in front of Isabelle’s eyes and her stomach rolled. She swallowed back the sour taste in her mouth as another wave of dizziness hit her. She couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t she remember?

Focus.

He was so cold. Too cold.

‘God, help me!’

She tried to breathe but it felt like her lungs were filled with cement, each breath more of an effort than the one before it.

Fletcher stood over her, his shadow blocking the hot sun. Saltwater dripped from him and landed on her bare back like sharp slivers of glass.

Sobbing and praying, she started compressions again. One, two, three, four, five. All the way up to thirty again. Another two breaths. Did his chest rise enough? On her knees still, she scrambled in the wet sand and felt for a pulse. Still nothing.

In a splash of red and yellow, the Surf Life Savers arrived. Someone called triple zero. Someone handed Fletcher a beach towel and pulled him away. Someone dumped an automatic electronic defibrillator on the sand next to her and attached leads to Dan’s lifeless body. Finally, an ambulance appeared, but there was no need for lights and sirens.

It was too late.

Another wave, bigger this time, swallowed Dan’s entire body, endeavouring to wrench him away from her grasp. It was hopeless. She couldn’t stop the ocean from taking him. He was already gone. Love wasn’t enough.

The sun dimmed and the noise around her faded. A whoosh filled her ears – the rushing sound of blood and the ocean. She would
not
faint. She clung tighter to Dan’s soulless body and wept.

Help us!

Chapter 1

‘How much longer, Mummy?’

In the seat behind her, six-year-old Mietta’s voice grated down Isabelle’s spine like fingernails on a chalkboard.

She gripped the steering wheel tighter. If either of her kids asked again, she would do something drastic – like pull over and leave them both stranded on the side of the road in the rain. Her nerves were hammered thin and she was dangerously close to losing the control she fought so hard to maintain around them. They’d only been driving for four hours and still had at least another eight to go. Longer if the rain didn’t let up. She glanced at the heavens. It didn’t look likely.

‘If you ask me one more time, I’ll—’ She clamped her lips closed. What she wanted to say wasn’t appropriate for young ears, regardless of the fact they’d probably heard it all anyway.

The weather was atrocious. So far, it had poured the whole way from the time they’d pulled out of their driveway in Torquay, forcing her to drive slowly and carefully, well under the legal limit. At the speed they were travelling, the trip was going to take over an hour longer than she’d planned. The worn rubber wipers screeched rhythmically across the windscreen, scratching rainbow-shaped arcs across the glass, further reducing visibility. The sound had long since put Isabelle on edge.

To her left, the jagged outline of the Grampians came into view, rising abruptly from the farmlands of the Wimmera district.

Rolling her stiff neck, she shifted position. Her backside was numb. If only Dan was here to share the driving. She let her breath out slowly as tears pricked behind her eyelids. If Dan was here, she wouldn’t be driving halfway across the country to the middle of nowhere on a stupid whim. She touched his wedding ring hanging on the thin silver chain around her neck, and the familiar hollow ache of emptiness settled on her like a mantle. She would not wish this on anyone.

‘I miss you,’ she whispered.

Isabelle shook her head. There was no point dwelling on the past. She was out of options, and this long stretch of road unwinding in front of her was possibly the best path to their future. At least that’s what she’d told herself so many times she was starting to believe it was true. Taking a deep breath Isabelle pasted on a smile, hoping her kids would hear it in her voice and stop calling her ‘grumpy Mummy’ like they’d been doing for the past few months.

‘You’ve got your iPads, why don’t you play another game?’ she said. ‘We’ve still got a long way to go.’

‘But I want Fletcher’s iPad and he won’t give it to me.’

Fletcher turned around from the front seat to face Mietta. ‘You’ve got your own.’

Nearly a teenager, everything annoyed Fletcher, but number one on his list these days was his kid sister. He’d been moody since leaving home. He was worried about their future, but he had carried the weight of worry and his bad mood for hours longer than he needed to.

As they continued to niggle at one another, Isabelle ignored them. She supposed she should correct them, but she simply didn’t have the energy anymore. They had always gotten along so well until—’

‘Watch out, Mummy!’

Isabelle’s mouth went dry as the car in front of her unexpectedly pulled off to the side of the road without bothering to indicate. She tapped her brakes and yanked at the wheel, barely missing the back of the other vehicle. Her tyre hit a pothole before finding traction again on the wet surface.

Glancing left, she caught sight of an elderly man in the driver’s seat. ‘Bloody idiot!’ she shouted before drawing her eyes back to the wet highway in front of her. She consciously steadied her breathing and relaxed her shoulders. Her legs wobbled, as if the bones had liquefied.

‘You said a swear word,’ Mietta accused.

Isabelle bit back a harsh retort. ‘Yes I did, honey, and I’m sorry. I just got a fright. But we’re fine. Now, please, put your headphones back on and keep watching
Frozen
.’

‘But I want Fletcher’s iPad. His has better apps than mine. Plus I’ve already watched
Frozen
twice.’

‘Mietta Faith Cassidy, that’s
enough
,’ Isabelle snapped. She pushed her hair back from her face in frustration. They were lucky they
had
iPads.

‘Grumpy Mummy’s back,’ Mietta said in a stage whisper.

Fletcher twisted around in his seat to address his sister again. ‘She’s only grumpy because you’re so annoying.’

‘If Daddy was here—’

‘If Dad were here he’d tell you to shut up too,’ Fletcher said. ‘You’re being a brat, Mietta. Be quiet and let Mum drive in peace.’

Isabelle chewed on her bottom lip. She should remind Fletcher to watch his mouth, but inside she wanted to cheer. For a change Fletcher was on her side. She glanced at Mietta in the rear view mirror. Her ‘mini-me’: long hair, blue eyes, clear skin, as thin as a whippet and constantly moving. Right now, her sad eyes were fixed on the small screen in her lap.

Fletcher re-positioned his ear buds and closed his eyes. An arrow of worry penetrated Isabelle’s heart. The past year had not been easy. Not for her. Not for him. Not for any of them. Fletcher had been forced to grow up too quickly. One moment he had been her baby boy, the next he had morphed into a man-child with a breaking voice right in front of her eyes. Half the time he spoke in monosyllables, the rest of the time he merely grunted. Dan used to tell her not all teenagers behaved badly, but if the past year was any indication, Fletcher was not going to be an easy kid to parent.

Worry creased her brow and she quickly smoothed her features as her mother’s scathing words sprang to mind: ‘
Don’t frown, darling. You’ll get wrinkles and we all know how unattractive wrinkles are. At your age you shouldn’t need Botox.

Isabelle bit back a snort. They had been harsh words coming from Karen, the queen of fillers. Isabelle’s father, Ian, was a plastic surgeon, and his biggest client was his wife.

Isabelle frowned again, to spite her mother. Who cared anymore if she got wrinkles? Concentrating on her breathing, she pushed all thoughts of her parents out of her mind. Isabelle couldn’t change the fact she was a disappointment to them. Glancing at her own kids, her heart exploded with love. They weren’t a disappointment to
her
.

Their future as a family was the only reason she was going ahead with this crazy plan.

*

The further Isabelle got from Torquay, the more her spirits lifted. The painted white lines had disappeared beneath her car in a blur, as the Western Highway became Duke’s Highway. She took a deep breath. Everything would be okay. She marked off each town they’d passed in the map in her mind – Geelong, Ballarat, Ararat, Stawell, Horsham, Nhill, Kaniva. Anticipation bubbled. The car was steadily eating the kilometres, bringing her closer to their possible new life.

By the time they crossed the border into South Australia, the rain had stopped and the clouds lifted, revealing bright blue skies that helped lift her mood dramatically. They arrived in Bordertown in time for lunch and Isabelle drove slowly, keeping her eyes peeled for somewhere to pull over.

‘Can’t we stop at a cafe or something?’ Fletcher asked.

‘No, buddy, it costs too much money. I’ve made enough food to keep us going the whole way.’

He slouched lower into his seat and folded his arms. ‘Great. Vegemite sandwiches and lemon cordial. A veritable gourmet feast.’

She ignored his sarcasm.

‘How about Maccas?’ Mietta suggested.

‘They don’t have a McDonald’s in Bordertown,’ Isabelle replied.

‘Figures,’ Fletcher muttered under his breath. He stared out the side window and Isabelle imagined his eye roll.

The disgruntlement in his voice grabbed and she made a split second decision. ‘Maybe we can stop in Adelaide and have McDonald’s for tea.’ It was years since she’d driven this far west, but if her memory was correct, there was one on the outskirts of the city just over the Adelaide Hills. Burgers and fries shouldn’t break the budget.

‘“Maybe” always means no with you,’ Fletcher said.

She clenched her teeth before answering. ‘
Maybe
means I’ll consider it, okay?’

Wisely, Fletcher kept his mouth shut this time.

Isabelle drove on, searching for somewhere suitable to stop. She finally spotted a grassy area as she was about to give up and keep driving. Pulling into the service road, she parked in front of a small tin structure with a weathered timber picnic table and bench seats. She switched off the engine, got out of the car and stretched her stiff muscles. Massive eucalypts provided much welcome shade, their shiny trunks in sharp contrast to the deep green of their leaves. Cars zoomed past on the highway. It wasn’t peaceful, but it would do.

Fletcher and Mietta piled out of the car and gazed around.

‘This is not a park. There’s no play equipment,’ Mietta complained, her face mirroring the disgusted expression on her brother’s face.

Fletcher’s head was down, his cap pulled low, as he persistently stubbed the toe of his shoe into a clump of dried grass. Isabelle wanted to grab him and force him to look up. His dad might have died, but he had to keep on living. She’d lost count of how many times she’d reminded him of that.

‘We’re not here to play,’ Isabelle said through gritted teeth. ‘This is only a quick stop for lunch.’ She indicated the esky. ‘Grab something to eat and drink. If you need to go to the toilet, there’s one over there.’ She pointed in the direction of the tin shed.

Fletcher’s nose wrinkled. ‘Gross. I’ll hang on.’

‘Suit yourself,’ she muttered.

The weather was warmer than Isabelle had expected. She stripped off her jumper in the hope the sun would take away the constant chill that invaded her body. If only it would take away the chill in her soul.

They ate in silence. Ducks made a pleasing distraction, paddling their way around a small lake, but Fletcher and Mietta didn’t notice them.

After lunch Mietta swung herself around the metal pole of a road sign, obviously over her disappointment at the lack of swings. Isabelle smiled. She always managed to make a game out of nothing. Isabelle adored that about her. That, and the way she had the ability to sum people up. When it came to trusting strangers, Isabelle had learned to take her cues from her daughter.

Isabelle finished her sandwich and poured herself a coffee from the thermos she had prepared before leaving Torquay. She sipped gingerly from the plastic cup. The lukewarm coffee slid down her throat and her stomach twisted in complaint. She should have agreed to stopping at a cafe – it could be hours before she got a proper coffee.

Fletcher plonked down on the timber seat opposite her. Head still down, he traced the carved outline of words on the timber table, derision oozing from every pore. He nibbled disinterestedly at his lunch. Hidden under his peaked cap, Isabelle could barely see his eyes, but she knew there were dark circles of pain beneath them. Dark circles that matched a darkening mood. A mood which darkened further every day. It had to stop.

The hat was the one Dan gave Fletcher for his last birthday, brought back from America after one of his numerous trips for work. It had a logo emblazoned on the front, and although Isabelle knew it was one of the American basketball teams, she had no idea which one. No point asking Fletcher. He would roll his eyes at her as if she should have known.

Because his dad would have known.

Fletcher looked exactly like Dan. His skin sported a perpetual tan, regardless of the season. Tall and thin, he was showing signs of muscles on his upper arms. Each day he became less her baby boy and more of the man he was so desperate to become.

Until six months ago, Fletcher had been a surf kid. At night while he slept, Isabelle used to imagine all manner of marine life crawling from his hair. When he woke one day and declared he was never going to surf again it had staggered her. True to his word, he hadn’t stepped foot in the ocean since. A skateboard had replaced his surfboard and her normally happy-go-lucky son had rolled further away from her.

She was worried about him. Worried about both of them. As she tipped the remains of her cold coffee on the ground, she silently cursed the way life had turned out for her family. It had only taken an instant, but in that one moment their lives had irrevocably changed.

‘This place we’re going to – will it be like this?’ Fletcher’s question interrupted her dark thoughts.

‘The
place
has a name.’

‘Yeah, right.
Stony Creek.

She chose to ignore his tone.

‘So is it going to be as small as this town?’

Was that a hint of fear she detected in Fletcher’s voice? Her attitude softened. He’d suffered enough, and perhaps she was being too hard on him. ‘Smaller,’ she said softly.

‘Why can’t we just stay in Torquay?’

Isabelle’s heart constricted. How was she supposed to explain the bank was taking their house? Like most young couples, they’d expected to have twenty-five years or more to pay off a loan, so they’d built a big house and lived well, with little thought to the future. When her parents discovered the extent of her debts, they’d been furious. Although they had the means to help her out financially, they’d hadn’t offered. Not that she wanted their money anyway.

‘I’ve already told you why we can’t stay in Torquay. With me not working, we can’t afford the mortgage repayments. Moving to Stony Creek might be a chance for us to get back on our feet.’

Mietta slid into the seat beside Isabelle, pushing herself up close until they were touching. ‘So
are
we moving?’ Her voice wobbled.

‘I don’t know.’

She tucked a stray curl behind her daughter’s ear. How was she supposed to explain to a six-year-old that they were applying for one of four houses along with twenty other people? Isabelle wasn’t sure she understood it herself.

She recalled Rachel King’s email. Rachel was the coordinator of the Peppercorn Project, and Isabelle had memorised every word.


Congratulations, Isabelle! You are one of twenty contestants chosen from over a thousand applicants from around Australia. We invite you and your family to Stony Creek on the weekend of September 15 – 16 for an interview and a chance to taste our country hospitality. We will choose four families to win a coveted Peppercorn lease. Will one of those be yours?’

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