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Authors: Nicki Edwards

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BOOK: The Peppercorn Project
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Chapter 6

Once inside Rachel introduced the other members of the panel. Alison Monahan was the local nurse and Isabelle warmed to her immediately. Jack O’Rourke was a tall and gnarled older man, straight off the farm. Obviously chosen for his quiet wisdom, the smile he gave Isabelle when she walked in set her at ease.

‘Tell me, Isabelle, what made you apply for one of our houses?’ Rachel crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in her chair, placing her lime green clipboard down in her lap.

Isabelle had glimpsed a list of questions on the clipboard as she’d followed Rachel into the hall. Jack and Alison had matching clipboards in front of them.

She drew in a deep breath before exhaling in a rush. ‘The bank has repossessed my house. We have to be out next month and have nowhere else to live. And I’ve only got enough money to get me through until Christmas.’

The only sound in the hall was the rattle of an old air conditioner in the window.

Jack silently twisted a thick gold wedding band around his left ring finger and avoided Isabelle’s eyes. Alison looked at Fletcher. She had shocked them. She’d seen that look on the faces of strangers more times than she could count.

‘Why don’t you tell us your story, Isabelle,’ Alison suggested.

Isabelle smiled gratefully at her.

‘You said in your application you lost your husband recently?’

Pain speared Isabelle’s chest and she experienced the familiar tightening of her ribcage. She worked hard to breathe as she forced a smile. ‘Yes. January.’ She hated the way her voice cracked. The most traumatic event of her life had occurred nine months ago, yet it felt as though it was yesterday. Tension nestled into large knots in her shoulders. ‘Dan was out surfing earlier this year and had a heart attack. Unfortunately he couldn’t be revived.’ Her voice was soft, barely above a whisper.

Uncomfortable silence hogged the room. Mietta scooted forward in her seat and reached for Isabelle’s hand. Fletcher’s chin dropped to his chest and he started jiggling one leg furiously – a nervous habit Isabelle thought he had broken. She swore under her breath. Why hadn’t she considered her kids before launching into their story?

Alison coughed politely behind her hand and spoke. ‘Children hate being cooped up inside, Isabelle. It’s a glorious day, why don’t you let Fletcher and Mietta run around and explore? They can’t get into any harm, and they know where you are. We can continue the interview and you can catch up with them afterwards.’

The offer was barely out of Alison’s mouth before Fletcher sprang from his seat.

Isabelle smiled at the older woman in appreciation. With a nod to Fletcher, he took off out the door. She squeezed Mietta’s hand. ‘What about you, darling? Do you want to head outside with Fletcher?’

‘He won’t want me tagging along,’ Mietta said.

‘Why don’t you go outside and sit with Leah?’ Isabelle suggested. ‘You can help check out the competition,’ she whispered.

‘Okay,’ Mietta said, although she didn’t sound convinced.

‘I’m here if you need me, okay?’

Mietta obeyed, her feet shuffling across the timber floor. The door slammed shut and Isabelle jumped involuntarily. She quickly recovered, turning her attention back to the three people opposite her.

‘It must be hard on the kids,’ Alison said softly. ‘Losing their dad unexpectedly, and in such tragic circumstances.’

Isabelle nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She had been so confident she could get through the interview without crying, and yet one kind word and the tears, which were always just under the surface, bubbled up and threatened to tip over the edge. Was she going to be stuck on this emotional rollercoaster forever?

Delving into her handbag, she found a tissue and blew her nose loudly. She drew in another deep breath and let it out.

‘We were about to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary,’ she said.

Rachel nodded and they waited for Isabelle to continue.

‘We met at the end of Year Twelve and fell in love. Then I fell pregnant.’ From the moment Dan cut the cord and took Fletcher into his arms, he was besotted. ‘Dan and Fletcher were so close.’ Isabelle sniffed. ‘They had a special bond. Whatever Dan did, Fletcher wanted to do it too.’

‘How old is Fletcher?’ Jack asked.

‘Twelve. A teenager next year.’ She smiled sadly. ‘Not the best age for a kid to lose his Dad.’

‘I don’t think any time is a good time,’ Alison replied gently, reaching out to touch Isabelle’s hand. Tears stung Isabelle’s eyes at the other woman’s kindness.

‘And Mietta?’ Rachel asked.

Isabelle’s mouth curled upwards in a smile. ‘Mietta is six. She’s my angel. I lost three babies between Fletcher and Mietta and we had decided not to try for another baby when I fell pregnant again. She was our little surprise miracle.’

‘She seems shy,’ Rachel said. ‘How do you think she’ll cope if you win – moving and everything? You’re making a big decision.’

Isabelle nodded. ‘I agree, but the decision is out of our hands. Dan had no life insurance, we’d over-extended ourselves with our mortgage and relied on our credit cards too much. Even with some money from his super, it wasn’t enough to keep the house. The bank has sold it and we have until the end of November to move out.’

‘And if you don’t get one of the houses here, what will you do?’ Jack asked kindly.

‘I’m not sure. Get a job. Start again.’ Isabelle shrugged. ‘Move back in with my parents, I guess.’

‘Is that an option?’ Rachel asked.

Isabelle screwed up her face. ‘Not really. My parents didn’t like Dan. They never forgave me for falling pregnant when I was so young. In their eyes, it was inexcusable to be pregnant and not get married straightaway. They’ve come around in the last couple of years, but since Dan’s death my father made it clear I made my bed a long time ago …’

‘And now you have to lie in it,’ Alison said.

‘Yeah, it’s a cliché, but that’s how it is.’

‘And Dan’s parents?’ Rachel asked.

Isabelle hesitated, wondering how much information she needed to divulge. ‘Dan’s mum died before Mietta was born and we have no contact with his dad anymore.’

Jack frowned. She knew what was going through his mind. The same thing went through hers regularly. Both sets of parents had missed so much in the lives of their grandchildren.

‘That’s just the way it is,’ Isabelle explained. ‘For years it was only the four of us. We haven’t needed anyone else.’

‘How did you hear about the Peppercorn Project?’ Rachel asked, glancing at her watch, her clipboard, and then back at Isabelle. It was clear she intended to get the interview back on track.

Isabelle was glad for the change in topic. She launched into an explanation of how she’d seen the advertisements on social media. ‘I like how you’ve put a different slant on the one-dollar-a-week-rent schemes that other towns have offered.’

‘Most of those have failed,’ Rachel said. ‘I wanted to do something a little bit different. Unlike other towns, our town isn’t dying and doesn’t need rescuing and we want to keep it that way. We believe we have something to offer families such as yours. If you like living here, it’s win-win for both of us. The town helps you, and you help keep us keep the place alive.’

‘Do you understand what a Peppercorn lease is?’ Alison asked.

Isabelle shook her head. ‘Not really.’

‘It’s a legal term. A metaphor. A peppercorn payment or peppercorn rent refers to a small or nominal payment which is made to satisfy the requirements for the creation of a binding legal contract,’ Rachel said.

Isabelle frowned.

‘It’s not legal for us to offer you a contract for free rent,’ Jack explained. ‘The idea of a Peppercorn lease dates back several centuries when a peppercorn was paid as a nominal rent. We have four houses we want to offer for rent, but in order for the contract to be valid and binding, it has to be written so that the person paying rent gives something of value, a token sum, a peppercorn, if you like.

In this case, you’ll pay a nominal amount of rent – one dollar a week – for the whole year. After that, the rent will revert to standard rent prices, which I assure you will be less than half what you’d pay in Torquay.’

Isabelle nodded. It all sounded fair and reasonable. Surely in twelve months’ time she would be back on her feet financially and emotionally? Then she could make a decision about her long-term future.

‘How do you plan to support yourself while you live here?’ Alison asked.

‘Do you mean, as in working?’ Isabelle asked.

Alison nodded. ‘It’s not a prerequisite, but part of the idea of bringing people into town is we want to help them get back on their feet. We think working and getting involved in the community is the way to do that.’

‘In other words, you don’t want dole bludgers.’ Isabelle wriggled in her seat. ‘I understand, but for now, I’m still relying on government assistance. I’ll get the kids settled into school, then I’m happy to do anything. I can help at the school or work as a checkout chick.’ Isabelle laughed. ‘That’s if you have a supermarket.’

‘We do,’ Alison said with a smile. ‘But it’s only an IGA with one register. The population doesn’t warrant anything bigger.’

‘You said in your application that you’re a registered nurse,’ Rachel said, rifling through paperwork in her clipboard. ‘Are you currently nursing?’

Waves of heat and nausea rolled over Isabelle as uninvited memories resurfaced. She hadn’t been able to work since Dan’s death. The thought of having to perform CPR again filled her with dread. She took a deep breath before responding. ‘No.’

Rachel frowned.

Did I say something wrong?

‘Are you still able to work as a nurse?’ Rachel asked. ‘Are you still registered?’

‘Yes. But—’

Isabelle was about to explain when they were interrupted by a commotion at the door. She swivelled in her seat to see Fletcher being dragged in by a mountain of a man in a police uniform.

Her heart somersaulted and slammed against her chest.

Chapter 7

The boy’s mother jumped so fast from her seat at the table that her chair tilted and fell backwards onto the old wooden floor. The crack of timber on timber echoed loudly in the old building, like a gunshot. She rushed to her son’s side and pulled him towards her in a tight embrace. Bright spots of colour burned in her pale cheeks and a flush crept up her neck.

She jutted her chin out and glowered at him. ‘What the hell is going on?’

It didn’t take an expert in body language to see she was furious – with him or her son, Matt wasn’t sure. She looked nothing like this in his dreams. He rubbed his face. This was not the way to make a good first impression. Why had he dragged the boy into the room? He should have waited until the interview was over. Dammit! He should have
thought
.

She was still glaring at him, and for once Matt wished he wasn’t so tall. His height intimidated some people, and the woman standing beside him barely reached his shoulder.

He extended his hand, hoping to defuse the situation he had created. ‘I’m Sergeant Matthew Robertson.’

She looked at his hand as though he was passing her a loaded weapon, before taking it and shaking it quickly.

‘I caught your son stealing,’ Matt said.

There was a sharp intake of breath. ‘What?’ Her mouth hung open. She tilted her head back to look up at her son – he was already half a head taller than she was. ‘You stole something?’ The incredulity in her voice was impossible to miss.

‘I was hungry,’ the boy replied softly.

Matt strained to hear him.

‘What did you steal?’ she asked.

The boy didn’t answer, just dropped his head lower. Matt wanted to lift the cap off his head, grab his chin and make him look his mother in the eyes, but something stopped him. Matt was missing something. Something else was troubling this kid.

‘How about we all have a chat about this outside later?’ Matt suggested, backing down. ‘Once the interview is over, perhaps?’

He smiled apologetically at Alison and Jack and dared a glance at Rachel. He looked away quickly. He recognised disappointment on their faces. A chill slipped over him as if the midday sun had slipped behind a cloud. They weren’t disappointed in the boy or his mother, they were disappointed in him. For interrupting their interview. For reflecting poorly on Stony Creek. For jeopardising the whole project.

Matt cursed under his breath. He had handled the situation the wrong way. He’d seen the boy swipe the plastic bag of croissants and he reacted, rather than taking a breath and responding more appropriately. Assuming the teenager was a city kid bringing trouble to their country town, he’d planned to nip it in the bud. In hindsight, it appeared he was off the mark.
Way
off the mark.

‘I think we should continue our interview another time, Isabelle,’ Rachel said. ‘Perhaps we can reschedule you again late tomorrow afternoon after we’ve finished all the other interviews. If we have time, that is.’

First Matt registered Rachel’s dismissive tone, then the woman’s name.

Isabelle
.

‘What did he steal?’ Isabelle pulled herself up tall, ignoring Rachel’s comment.

This was one woman not afraid of confrontation. Or his height. The way she stood reminded Matt of a lioness protecting her cubs. Despite the intense anger she directed at him, he found her incredibly attractive.

‘A bag of croissants from the bakery.’

She bit her lower lip so hard Matt expected to see blood. She turned to face her son. ‘
Why
Fletcher?’

The boys’ voice was softer than before. ‘I was hungry, Mum. We had nothing for breakfast other than those muesli bars, and I wanted to save them for you and Mietta.’

A weight landed on Matt’s shoulders. A growing boy needed more than a muesli bar for breakfast. Isabelle reached into her handbag and took out a wallet. Matt put up his hand to stop her. ‘He didn’t get to eat them. I handed the bag straight back to the bakery.’

Embarrassment crossed her face. ‘I still want Fletcher to apologise.’

‘As long as he promises not to do it again, I think we can pretend it never happened. Forget it.’

Fletcher nodded, but his eyes remained downcast. Matt’s soft heart broke for the boy. The kid was just hungry.

‘Come on, son, let’s get you some breakfast.’ Matt touched him on the shoulder but Fletcher jerked away. His muscles flexed and anger flashed across his face, causing Matt to step back.

‘I’m not your son,’ Fletcher shouted, before shooting out the door like a cork popped from a bottle.

*

The door slammed closed before swinging open again as Mietta rushed in, followed by a stunned Leah. Judging by everyone’s expressions, Isabelle had blown her only chance at a new start. The whole thing was a disaster. She bit down on her lower lip again, hoping the pain would distract her from the worry, which was now working its way towards her heart.

She’d driven all this way for nothing.

She glanced at the policeman. He carried an air of authority about him, but she was startled by the look on his face. What that compassion? Or remorse? Compared to her impression of him the night before, he didn’t look as old as she’d thought. And this time she did notice his eyes. Brown like dark chocolate, he stared at her from behind black-framed glasses. He removed his hat and ran his hand over his cropped hair. She noticed the smattering of grey at his temples.

‘I’m very sorry.’ His sober countenance indicated each word mattered. His eyes locked with hers.

She dropped her head and stared at her feet. ‘
I’m
sorry,’ she muttered. There was nothing left to say. Scooping up her bag she rushed out, Mietta running to keep up with her.

‘We’ll be in touch, love,’ Jack called out.

Yeah right!
No doubt to tell her ‘thanks but no thanks’.

Isabelle wanted to cry. She’d foolishly risked everything on one chance. She didn’t have a Plan B. She didn’t have a home. And she didn’t have a clue where to go or what to do next.

Outside, she peered up and down the street. There was no sign of Fletcher. Assuming he would have headed for the car, she marched off in that direction.

‘Isabelle!’

She stopped and turned. Leah was chasing after her.

‘Wait!’ Leah was breathless by the time she caught up, her words coming out in short bursts. ‘I’ve spoken to Rachel. They want you to go and have breakfast and come back at twelve. They’ll slot you in before lunch for another interview.’

Isabelle’s eyes widened. Leah gripped her arm. ‘Don’t give up on this, Isabelle. You have just as good a chance as anyone else.’

‘But what am I going to do about Fletcher?’

Leah shrugged. ‘Honestly, I’ve got no idea. I don’t have kids, but I reckon he simply needs time and space. And there’s plenty of that on offer here.’ She smiled reassuringly.

‘But he
stole
something. He’s never done anything like this before.’

Leah touched her gently on the arm, the small squeeze bringing a measure of comfort. ‘And I reckon you’ll find he’s very sorry. I saw the look on his face. The poor kid, he was devastated. He knows he’s let you down.’

Isabelle looked around, heart thumping. Where was Fletcher? ‘I don’t even know where he’s gone.’

‘I bet he’s with the horses,’ Mietta said. ‘That’s where I’d go if I got in trouble.’

‘Thanks for everything, Leah,’ Isabelle said. ‘Please tell Rachel we’ll be back at twelve. And I’ll keep the kids with me this time.’

‘No need. I’ll be ready for a break myself by then. I’ll take them with me to the cafe for a milkshake and something to eat while you have another crack at the interview.’

‘Oh, I can’t afford that,’ Isabelle clapped a hand to her mouth. Why had she admitted that?

Leah’s eyebrows drew together. ‘Is that why Fletcher stole food? Because you don’t have any money?’

Isabelle dropped her head and kicked at a stone.

‘Isabelle?’

‘We’re on a tight budget. I packed things for breakfast – cereal and bread – but it was late when we arrived and there was nowhere to stop for milk. I didn’t realise the cabin wouldn’t have a toaster.’ She ran her tongue over her lips.

‘Have
you
eaten?’ Leah asked.

‘I had a cup of tea. At least there was a kettle.’ Isabelle forced a smile.

Leah made a clucking sound in the back of her throat. ‘Right, that’s it. You’re all coming with me. Rachel can do without me for a while.’ Leah grabbed Isabelle’s hand and dragged her in the direction of the primary school. ‘Let’s find Fletcher and get you guys something to eat. The pub serves breaky until midday. Come to think of it, you all look like you could use a good feed.’

Mietta clapped in delight. ‘Fletcher loves bacon and eggs,’ she said. ‘He’ll be rapt!’

Isabelle shook her head in wonder. How was it that a six-year-old knew there was nothing better than food to coax a better mood out of the sullen?

*

Matt followed Isabelle at a distance. He wanted to make things right with her, but had no idea how. His stupid city cop brain had kicked in and he’d forgotten that not all teenage kids with baseball caps pulled low on their heads were out to cause trouble. He groaned miserably. He was never going to hear the end of this from Rachel. On top of that, before the morning was over, he was positive Geoff would know all about it and he would have to deal with his boss too.

When he caught sight of Leah with Isabelle, he breathed a sigh of relief. Leah had a heart as big as Phar Lap’s – she’d take good care of Isabelle and her kids. The sight of the little girl bouncing between the two women, caused a strange tugging sensation to pull at Matt’s chest. A sensation he hadn’t felt before. Something about her made him want to wrap the kid in cotton wool. The thought surprised him. He’d always wanted kids, but his ex-wife hadn’t. Now, chasing forty, he was reconciled to the fact that his chances of finding love again – let alone of starting a family – were getting slimmer every day. He shook his head. Where were these thoughts coming from? He had no interest in another relationship.

Ahead of him, the trio turned into the school grounds and Matt stopped. He couldn’t keep following them. He spied Fletcher under the trees, standing at the fence with the horses, stroking the neck of the large bay. Matt watched the mare searching Fletcher’s pockets for treats. The boy laughed and the anger was gone. Matt wished he had a bag of carrots. He would have loved to stand beside Fletcher and start again.

Matt ran his hands through his hair. What had gotten into him? Was it just curiosity or something more? Matt had no idea why, but Isabelle and her family had captured his undivided attention in a way no one had in a very long time.

He allowed his gaze to fall on Isabelle. The dappled sunlight turned her hair into spun gold. Despite her tiny size, something about the way she held herself made Matt wonder if she was in fact much stronger than she appeared. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help but notice her tanned legs below her skirt, or the way her T-shirt hugged a perfect figure. It was a long time since any woman had caused this reaction in him, and it took him by surprise.

Damn those old matchmakers! It was their fault. They had put these thoughts into his head the minute they mentioned she was single. He dragged his eyes away and shook his head, willing himself to come to his senses.

Isabelle.
He murmured her name softly as he walked away and tried to ignore the spring in his step.

Belle.
He was certain it was French for ‘beauty’.

BOOK: The Peppercorn Project
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