For Bella Fairburn the waterhole at Mullinjim was a magical place. It lay in a deep, lazy bend in the river, shaded by stately paperbarks and flanked by a steep bank on one side and a sloping, sandy beach on the other, and it was famous for holding water through even the hottest and driest of north Queensland summers.
During the long, sweltering summer between Bella’s eleventh and twelfth birthdays, her brother Luke was home from boarding school, and the two of them hung out there as often and for as long as their parents allowed.
Their neighbour Gabe Mitchell was home too, and he joined them, riding over from Redman Downs with his little sisters in tow.
Luke and Gabe made a tyre swing and the five kids took turns to dive-bomb from it into the welcoming bliss of the cool, tea-coloured water. When they weren’t on the swing they were swimming and duck-diving, or playing their favourite water-fight game, Marco Polo.
Eventually they flung themselves, happily tired, onto the bank. Lying with the warmth of the soft sand beneath her back, chewing stalks of the sweet grass that grew in the damp shade, Bella shielded her eyes against sharp splinters of light that pierced the overhanging branches, and stole secretive glances at Gabe as he wielded a knife to hack juicy slices of watermelon.
Her brother won the competition to see who could spit the seeds the furthest, and they tossed the rinds into a clump of rubber vine where wild pigs would find them later, at dusk.
The day was perfect. Or at least, it would have been perfect if Bella wasn’t so painfully, miserably aware of how much Gabe Mitchell had changed.
At boarding school, he was in the swimming team and that apparently involved a lot of extra training, so he was very suntanned and the tips of his brown hair were bleached by sun and chlorine.
But these weren’t the only changes. All of a sudden, Gabe looked manly. The shape of his throat had altered considerably. He had an Adam’s apple now, and his shoulders were much wider and musclier. There was also a smattering of hair on his chest.
For the first time, Bella realized that the boy she’d secretly admired for so long was leaving her behind, growing into a man, while she was stuck behind in childhood.
Her breasts were only the tiniest buds. Basically, she was still a skinny little kid, emphasis on skinny. Worse, she was grimly aware of her competition at Gabe’s school.
She’d travelled to Townsville with her parents when Luke started at the same co-ed boarding school. She’d seen the girls in their snazzy uniforms with their too-knowing eyes and shiny, trendy hairstyles, their waxed legs and shapely chests.
A year ago they hadn’t bothered her so much. A year ago she’d been ten going on eleven. In other words, clueless.
Now… at almost twelve, Bella knew better. This year, she’d seen girls turning stupid over boys at the little Gidgee Springs primary school – flirting and simpering and making fools of themselves. Now, she was hit by a deeper understanding of what happened when Gabe mixed with those older, sexier Grammar School girls. Every day.
Of course, the girls would be flirting with him, falling in love with him, making him fall in love with them…
‘Hey, misery guts, what’s the matter with you?’
Luke must have noticed her moping and he roughly prodded her in the ribs.
Bella had to think up a quick excuse. ‘The watermelon’s given me stomach-ache.’
Just her luck, the fib came back to bite her.
When everyone else dived back into the water, she
jumped up to join them, but Gabe stopped her, grabbing her arm.
‘You shouldn’t swim if you’ve got belly-ache.’
Damn. Gabe was always being over-protective and bossy like that. The others had already started playing again.
They were having a great time firing armfuls of water, and Bella was so mad at Gabe. But as she sank sullenly onto the riverbank and watched the others, the most wonderful thing happened.
Gabe sat down beside her.
Just the two of them.
‘Aren’t you going swimming?’ she asked, amazed.
He simply shook his head, and he stayed there, all grown up and gorgeous, elbows propped on suntanned knees… talking…
He told her about stuff he’d learned at school – how summer on Uranus lasted for twenty years. And how the guy who discovered Uranus, wanted to call it George after King George.
‘Maybe he should have called it Your Highness,’ Bella giggled. ‘Anything’s better than Your Anus.’
Gabe rewarded her small joke with a chuckle, and then he told her how scientists had decided that a meteorite had chilled the earth and caused the ice age that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Best of all he made her feel as if she wasn’t at all boring, or too young to be bothered with. He was kinder than any brother could have been and gave the impression that he really liked being with her.
Sitting there, talking with him, Bella forgot she was a skinny, shapeless, not-quite-twelve year old. And all the time he was talking, Gabe’s eyes held a special sparkle that made her heart swoop and soar.
Young as she was, she sensed that this conversation on the riverbank took their friendship in a new direction. It felt like the start of something very grand.
Twelve years later…
Bella was not homesick, not in the least. She was having a blast living abroad, the time of her life. Posh theatres in London, exquisite dinners in Paris, a midnight kiss on the Ponte Vecchio.
Travelling overseas was like living in a film script, with the added bonus that she could reinvent herself along the way. After almost two years, Bella was confident that the naïve country tomboy from Gidgee Springs had morphed into a sophisticated woman of the world.
Okay, so maybe she was currently working in a French ski resort and her job mostly involved cleaning bathrooms and babysitting spoilt English kids, but she still had brilliant fun on her days off. This morning, for example, she was standing at the summit of Mont Cenis, looking out at a spectacular view of majestic white peaks and a lake as clear and still as blue glass. She could even catch a glimpse of Italy shimmering in the distant clouds.
It was a classic Alpine scene and as different from the red dust of the Australian outback as it was possible to find. So it made absolutely no sense that the view made her think wistfully of a dirt track winding through bushland. Dogs in the back of a ute. Nights spent sleeping in a swag under the stars. Going with her friends to the Dirranbilla Show.
She supposed she could blame her nostalgia on the lungfuls of fresh air up here, and the unexpected, overhead expanse of clear blue sky.
The crisp air and the sky reminded her of winter mornings back at Mullinjim, her family’s North Queensland property, of waking early to a sparkling-clear day and taking her horse Sassy for a thundering, pre-breakfast gallop over the hard turf on the river flats. Coming home red-cheeked and windswept to her mum’s warm kitchen, to mugs of steaming sweet tea, hot buttered toast and Vegemite.
Just thinking about it, Bella’s throat tightened and her eyes stung, and she was pierced by a painful longing to be home in her family’s faraway kitchen.
She could picture her mum at the stove, cooking sausages and eggs, and her dear old dad coming in from the yard, stomping his boots on the mat at the back door. Her brother Luke would arrive, late for breakfast, sleepy-eyed and unshaven and ravenous.
Bella squeezed her eyes shut to stop the embarrassing tears from spilling. This was ridiculous. She’d deliberately left that world.
She took a long, deep breath. Took a few more deep breaths of cool, snowy air and felt a little better. When she opened her eyes again, she concentrated on the view in front of her, on the majesty of the towering peaks and the serene beauty of Lac du Mont Cenis.
It was breathtaking up here. And in the valley below, in the quaint, snow-coated town of Lanselbourg, Anton would soon be back from the pistes. He’d be waiting. For her.
Thinking about her cute, French ski-patrol boyfriend, Bella smiled. Felt calmer. The wobbly moment was over.
She and Anton had been an item for almost a month now, and today they’d managed to score the rest of the day off together. This afternoon, they would hang out in Flo’s bar with their friends, eating hot dogs in baguettes with Dijon mustard and drinking Vin chaud. The evening was destined to end up pretty wild, but afterwards, the night would be theirs…
Friends, parties and adventure… This was the life Bella enjoyed now, the life she wanted.
Smiling happily once more, she dug her ski poles into the snow and pushed forward, felt the thrilling, stomach-dropping rush of adrenaline as she took off down the long, white slope.
‘Bella, you’re back at last.’
Anton appeared at her door as she was dragging off her woolly hat and gloves.
She grinned at him. ‘I came all the way down L’Escargot without stopping.’
The run, which doubled as a road in summer, was the longest green piste in the Alps. Bella was still getting the hang of skiing and she expected high praise from Anton, but he was frowning. She couldn’t see a hint of his habitual, cute smile.
In fact, his lovely blue eyes were troubled.
‘Hey,’ she said gently.
Dropping her outdoor things, she hurried to kiss him, but as she started to hug him, he stopped her with a hand on her wrist, as if to warn her. His frown hadn’t lifted.
Bella felt a stab of alarm, told herself she was overreacting. ‘Crikey, mate. As my dad would say, you’ve got a face like a dropped meat pie.’
Normally, this would have made Anton smile.
‘Your aunt rang,’ he said, still serious. ‘I got back early, and I’ve been waiting here. She’s rung from London three times. It must be urgent.’
Bella was determined to be cool. Anton was a bit of a worry wart, no doubt because he spent his days rescuing skiers who found themselves in serious trouble. Just the same, she whipped her mobile phone from her pocket. She’d turned it off while she was up on the mountain, but now she flicked it on and a host of messages filled her screen, all from Liz, except for an earlier one from her mother.
‘Gosh, Liz is keen. She’s probably coming over to Paris to give another concert and she wants me to meet her for dinner.’
It wouldn’t be the first time her aunt had flown over from London and lashed out on an impromptu treat.
Bella flashed a smile Anton’s way. ‘She might invite you, too.’
‘Bella, she sounded anxious –’
She shrugged, pressed speed dial straight to her aunt who answered on the second ring.
‘Hi, Liz.’ At Liz Fairburn’s insistence, Bella had dropped “Aunty” when she first arrived in the UK. ‘It’s Bella here. What’s happening?’
‘Darling, I’ve been trying to get you all morning. Your mother couldn’t get through and I said I’d keep trying.’ As Anton had warned, Liz’s voice was unnaturally tense and tight. ‘I’m afraid it’s bad news.’
Bella’s bravado deserted her.
‘Your father’s had another heart attack,’ Liz said gently.
Fear, hot as a struck match, flared in Bella’s chest. ‘He hasn’t –? He’s not –?’ She couldn’t bring herself to say the dreaded word.
‘Darling, he’s in hospital in Townsville. In intensive care.’
Her father was alive… that was something at least. ‘It… it must be serious.’
‘I think it is quite serious, Belle. A lot worse than last time.’
Blindly, Bella clutched at a bedpost as everything inside her crumpled. Dimly, she was aware of Anton hovering in the doorway as she sank onto the bed, her mind whirling in scared, useless circles.
She wanted to think clearly, but her head was filled with images of her poor dad in hospital, desperately ill, quite possibly dying, surrounded by machines and grim-faced people in white coats.
So far away…
Only one thought came through clearly. ‘I’ll have to go home.’
Her mother had talked her out of rushing back to Australia last time – the doctors had been confident her dad would pull through – and he had. He’d made a brilliant recovery, and he’d gone back to running their cattle property just as he always had.
This time, however, there could be no question of staying in Europe.
‘Yes,’ her aunt said. ‘I think we should both go. I’ll come with you.’
There was suddenly so much to do. Leave to be arranged. Flights to be booked. Packing. Farewells to Josie, Bella’s boss, and the rest of the Alpazur staff.
Throughout the busy afternoon, as Bella made phone calls or flung clothes into a pack, she was gripped by gnawing, panicky fear. Each minute felt like wasted time.
She was terrified she wouldn’t make it back to see her father, to speak to him. Suddenly, it seemed unforgivable that she’d stayed away so long. She needed to tell him how very much she loved him. She prayed he’d hold on. Was that hoping for a miracle?
Anton, bless him, really stepped up to the plate, finding the right balance of concern and sympathy, helping her anyhow she needed without getting in the way.
In a surprisingly short time everything was arranged. Anton would drive her to the airport at Grenoble where she was booked on an early evening flight to London. After a brief night in her aunt’s house in Chelsea, they’d both catch a red-eye back to Australia.
More than once, Bella remembered the flash of homesickness she’d felt this morning, the rush of nostalgia for the familiar things of home, for the way things used to be…
Now… nothing was the way it used to be.
Her mother and brother weren’t at home. They were in Townsville, pacing hospital corridors, distraught. Her father was no longer running Mullinjim. He was gravely ill… possibly, dying…
The road down the Alps was winding and steep. Anton was an excellent driver, but even on a good day, the trip made Bella queasy. Today the steep bends provided an excuse not to talk, which was just as well, given that her head was stuffed with morbid thoughts she dared not voice.
But as they neared the lights of Grenoble, Anton cleared his throat. ‘You know everyone will miss you, Bella, especially Josie.’
‘Did she tell you that?’
‘She did, yes. She’s told me many times that she thinks you’re a lifesaver. You’re so good with the kids, and you work fast without complaining.’
‘You’ll miss me, too, won’t you?’
Anton didn’t answer, but Bella saw the way his throat worked and she felt suddenly guilty. Over the past few hours she’d been so completely self-absorbed that she hadn’t even tried to look at this dilemma from her boyfriend’s perspective. She tried to imagine never seeing him again.
‘You know I’ll come back, don’t you?’
Anton made no response, kept his jaw tight, his eyes straight ahead.
‘I will,’ Bella insisted. ‘I’ll come back, Anton.’ And then, she had to add, ‘You do want me to come back, don’t you?’
He turned to her then and she saw his face, lit by the headlights of the oncoming traffic, his blue eyes gleaming with emotion. He was so beautiful, her sweet, sexy Frenchman, with his longish dark hair and light blue eyes. His soft, sensuous lips.
‘I might have to stay on in Australia for a bit. To help. It’s hard to know, but one thing’s certain – I won’t be staying at home forever.’ Bella spoke with gathering confidence. ‘I’m totally hooked on travelling these days. I’m a migratory bird.’
At this, Anton smiled. ‘A migratory bird? Or pigeon voyageur?’
‘You know – the bird that flies straight to home by the fastest route.’
‘Oh, right. We call them homing pigeons.’
‘Homing pigeon,’ Anton repeated, dropping the h and making it sound French and sexy and reminding her of all the things she would miss about him.
‘I’ve left stacks of my stuff behind, and for only one reason. I’m coming back.’
‘Excellent,’ he said at last, with a smile she was so going to miss.
At the airport gate, she clung to him, aware that she was walking away from so much – not just her hunky new boyfriend, but her new world, her brave new self.
Anton kissed her neck and murmured soft, adorable things to her in French, and even though she didn’t understand all the words, his voice was soothing and gorgeous, winding through her like pink smoke from a magician’s spell.
On impulse Bella reached behind her neck and unclasped the gold chain carrying a horseshoe charm that she always wore. She pressed it into Anton’s hand.
He looked down at it with obvious surprise and then his dark brows drew into a frown as he rubbed the little horseshoe between his thumb and forefinger. He shook his head. ‘Why are you giving this to me, Bella? You always wear it. It’s important to you.’
It used to be important.
That thought caused a swift, painful sting, bringing memories she was still trying to forget. ‘It’s not important. And I know it’s safe with you. I’m leaving it as proof that I’m coming back.’
Anton was still frowning.
‘You might think it’s totally high school and clichéd, but honest, Anton, it makes me feel better.’
Sliding her arms around his neck, she kissed him again. I can’t stay at home.
She didn’t dare to ask herself why.
Anton’s eyes glistened as he gently traced her cheek and then her jaw with the backs of his fingers. ‘I didn’t want to say too much – I thought I would make it harder for you, if I told you how much I will miss you.’
Now, her throat was sharp. She forced herself to speak. ‘A girl never minds hearing that.’
A voice in a microphone spoke rapidly in French.
‘That’s a final call for your flight,’ Anton said. ‘You don’t want to miss it.’
Pressing a finger to his lips, Bella managed a brave smile. ‘In a while, crocodile.’
‘That’s Aussie speak for see you later.’ It was another of her dad’s favourites. During her childhood, she must have heard him say it a thousand times, but if she thought about that now she’d begin to howl.
Turning abruptly, she marched to the gate and handed her boarding pass and passport to be checked. She didn’t look back.
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