Chapter Extract

PART ONE - Chapter One

Today's the day! thought Cate Perry, and her stomach fluttered with nervous anticipation. It was first light on a crisp July morning at Twin Falls Station, and already the main yard was humming with activity as the station hands prepared for the big muster in two days' time. Cate watched them distractedly, her thoughts full of the day ahead. Last night, her father had agreed to let her fly her first solo in the station's two-seater Cessna 150. Today she was about to make her dream come true.

From the moment Cate had stepped into the cockpit of her father's Cessna at the age of three, she had wanted to be at the controls. At ten, she had announced that she would fly solo before she turned eighteen. Today was Cate's last chance to fulfil that dream – tomorrow was her eighteenth birthday. A stray lock of curly chestnut hair had escaped from the rag Cate had tied round her head to subdue her wild mane, and she pushed it back behind one ear as she leaned over the yard rail, revelling in her surroundings.

It was the dry season, winter in the Top End. The air was still cool from the cloudless night; the breeze hardly stirred the brittle straw-coloured grass, and the sky was a perfect cobalt blue fringed with cottonwool clouds. Famous for breeding beautiful, soft-faced cream and tan Brahman cattle, Twin Falls Station lay a half-day's flight from the outback town of Katherine, its nearest neighbour 40 kilometres away. Cate's maternal grandparents had built the elegant homestead, with its wide cool verandahs, and established the small garden sheltered by five huge hundred-year-old scribbly gum trees, their fat trunks decorated with the distinctive scribble-like patterns that gave them their name. Dotted around the yard, bottle-shaped boab trees spread their branches, creating more welcome shade. As though cut by a drunken hand, a dusty track meandered away from the property, past the corrugated-tin hangar, through the red dirt and scrub, and vanished over the horizon.

For the first nine years of her life Cate had known only love and safety. Her doting parents and grandparents had spoiled her, allowing her to run free as they built up Twin Falls. From an early age she had learned to work alongside her dad and she shared his passion for the property. An avid reader, he had read the classics to her in the evenings – Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling and Banjo Paterson and many others. Her mother was an excellent cook and passed on her many skills to Cate, as well as her love of the garden. Mary also had a sweet voice and encouraged Cate, who had a naturally beautiful voice, to sing.

Camp-fire singsongs became a favourite social event, with neighbours flying in from hundreds of kilometres away. The late afternoons were filled with delicious aromas of sizzling steaks and sausages, and the happy buzz of conversation. As darkness fell, people got out their instruments and the air vibrated to the music of Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson, the McKean Sisters and other renowned Australian country music singers, as well as raucous renditions of favourite Australian ballads. Brendan rewrote the words to 'Along the Road to Gundagai' –

'There's a track winding back to an old-fashioned shack along the road to Twin Falls Station!'

At the end they would fall about laughing as they gabbled the words that refused to fit to the beat, and before long it became their family anthem.

These happy times were forever imprinted on Cate's memory. Then, when she was almost nine, her grandparents died within three months of each other, and soon afterwards Mary herself fell ill. For Cate, the next eighteen months were impossibly grim as she watched her mother slowly die and saw the smile disappear from Brendan's eyes. Despite her father's constant reassurances, she somehow childishly believed that her mother's illness and his despair were all her fault.

After Mary finally slipped away, Cate and Brendan clung together, finding strength in each other as they struggled back to some sense of normality. Cate had longed to bring back the laughter and lighthearted frivolity that had once been so much a part of their little family. Two years later, while attending a cattle-breeding conference in the Whitsundays, Brendan had met a breathtakingly beautiful events manager, Tahlia Shotton, and the light was back in his eyes, the lilt in his step, and the walls of Twin Falls once more rang with laughter.

Cate had welcomed her new stepmother, who was closer to her than her father in age. She was grateful for the relief from death and misery that Tahlia brought, and the two had bonded surprisingly quickly. Cate loved Tahlia's lighthearted view of life and the fun they had together when Tahlia was around, and Tahlia watched with awe as Cate worked confidently with the men and animals on the property. Even before Brendan married Tahlia, Cate had made a pact with herself that she would get on with her new stepmother no matter what. But her resolve was at breaking point. Right now she felt guilty and mean about escaping from the house before Tahlia started dealing out more chores.

Today! Only for today! I'll make it up to Dad – and Tahlia, she promised.

Lately it seemed as though Tahlia was always pointing out Cate's flaws. The night before, goaded by Tahlia's accusations of a teenage lack of cooperation, seeing her promised birthday dinner and singsong evaporating and not wanting to accept she could be difficult and stubborn at times, Cate had shouted back that Tahlia never helped at home and was being mean and grossly unfair. It was too much for Tahlia. Eyes flashing, she had screamed at Cate, 'How d'you think I feel? You're not trying to have a baby!' then crumpled into Brendan's arms, weeping hysterically, and Cate had almost lost her chance to fly solo today. Only by pleading and begging and promising Brendan she would do nothing to upset Tahlia again had Cate managed to persuade her father to let her fly. But it had been a very close call.

Suddenly, as though on cue, Tahlia called from the house.

'Cate! Hurry up and come inside, please. I need you to get the sitting-room curtains down to be washed. We're spring-cleaning!'

'Coming!' called Cate, making an effort to sound friendly. She reached up to retie the piece of pink rag around her hair then hurried back to the house through the small vegetable patch, brushing past lavender bushes humming with bees. Maybe she could persuade Tahlia that now was not a good time to be spring-cleaning and remind her that it was the dry season and water was in short supply. When would her stepmother learn? On second thoughts, maybe reminding her wasn't such a good idea. She'd leave that to Brendan. She did only have to get through today, after all.

I'll offer to come straight back down after my solo flight and help then, and all day tomorrow, even though it is my birthday. That should do it, she thought with satisfaction, suddenly feeling much better.

The truth was, Cate was fond of Tahlia, and when her stepmother was happy they had a lot of fun together – although lately that wasn't very often. Cate glanced up at the sky. It really was a perfect day. Her happiness was short-lived, though. Running in the kitchen door, she bumped straight into Tahlia, sending Tahlia's pile of folded laundry flying.

'Watch where you're going, Cate!' cried Tahlia.

'Sorry!' said Cate, catching at shirts and immediately feeling fat and ugly next to her willowy stepmother. Tahlia had caught her long blonde hair in a tortoiseshell hair clip, which accentuated her almond-shaped hazel eyes and perfect heart-shaped face with its honey-cream skin. Only her ugly frown marred the effect.

'Where are you off to in such a hurry anyway?' Tahlia demanded. 'No, don't bother to tell me.' She picked up a shirt and shook off the dust with a look of disgust, then tossed it at Cate. 'That'll have to be washed again. Now, can you please take down the curtains in the sitting room straightaway? We've got heaps to do. This house is a dump.'

Knowing that to mention flying now would precipitate the very argument Cate was determined to avoid, she hesitated.

'Well, what are you waiting for?'

'Well, I'm flying solo today, remember? Dad —' Cate blurted, trying not to grin, unable to think what else to do.

'Yes, well, never mind all that . . .'

'No, Tahlia, really, Dad's waiting up at the hangar now. He'll be wondering where I am. I'll help you clean up the house all you want tomorrow, even though it's my birthday, and the next day and the next, I promise!'

'I'm sorry, Cate, but I need you today, so you can stay and do what I ask. That's what your father would want,' replied Tahlia, flushing with anger.

'You don't know what my father really wants,' Cate snapped before she could stop herself. 'No, no, Tahlia, I'm sorry, but . . . you were there! We agreed! Dad said I could go solo today as long as I pulled my weight and didn't annoy you. And I'm not trying to annoy you, Tahlia, honestly. But you know how much this means to me. Please, please understand . . .'

Tahlia slumped onto a nearby chair, looking hurt. 'I'm so tired of all this. Why can't you just help without all these excuses? Just once?' Her bottom lip started to quiver.

Cate's heart sank. 'No, really, Tahlia. I'm not trying to upset you. I'll help you as much as you like after I've done my flight but —'

Tahlia stood up impatiently. 'You're starting all over again, Cate. Did you even mean a word of what you said last night?' Her eyes filled with tears. Carefully she reached her beautifully manicured fingers up to her face to wipe them away.

'I did! I did!' cried Cate helplessly.

'I know you did. So stop being silly and let's get on with the cleaning together.' Tahlia gave her a sudden brilliant smile. 'Let's be friends today, eh?'

The grandfather clock struck the half-hour, startling Cate into panic as she saw her last chance of achieving her dream slipping away. Cornered, confused by Tahlia's sudden change of mood, swamped with guilt at upsetting her stepmother yet again, Cate stared back at her, agonisingly aware that time was ticking away as she dithered.

'Sorry, Tahlia!' she said suddenly. Then she turned and bolted outside, calling back over her shoulder, 'I'll make it up to you, I promise I will!'

Anne McCullagh Rennie 2013