by Virginia Hale
Bron never intended to move back to Australia. Wracked with guilt over her sister Libby’s death, she’s spent three months trying to handle her grief while taking care of Libby’s young daughter, Annie.
Libby’s best friend Ally never had a chance to say good-bye to her dear friend. When she finally returns home, Ally finds Libby’s family open and welcoming…everyone, that is, except Libby’s sister Bron.
For her part, Bron can’t fathom why her family is so enamored with Ally—even offering her a job and a place to live—but grudgingly admires the way Ally and Annie get along.
While Bron contemplates moving Annie to Boston and away from the only home the little girl has ever known, bushfires begin to rage in the nearby mountains, and Bron begins to see that she’s sorely underestimated her sister’s friend.
Soon Ally’s past and Bron’s future collide—with a heat and wonder that neither of them expected.
The Lesbian Review
…is a lovely Australian romance that has a lot of things I love: an ice queen that thaws, an age gap between the leads, and it takes place in a small town. The writing is smooth, the characters are compelling, and the pacing works very well. It also feels very Australian, rather than being a story that feels like it could be set anywhere. If you’re looking for a new comfort read, I totally recommend it.
Rainbow Book Reviews
This is Hale's debut novel and she's got a great career ahead of her judging from this one. It's a story of recovery, redemption, and how you deal with unexpected tragedy that changes the trajectory your life was taking. I read this book in pretty much one sitting, which speaks volumes of firstly, how well it's written, and secondly, how much the story pulled me in. In terms of quality of writing, Hale's style is for beautifully written scenes that flow superbly...It's a great book, definitely not a fluffy romance but the romance it contains is wonderful. Highly recommended.
Pin's Reviews - Echo Point is a debut novel by Virginia Hale, but without any of the typical first novel shortcomings. It is a warm story of love, loss and family, set in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, a region west of Sydney in Australia's New South Wales. The setting is really interesting, very well described, and plays a nice role in the narrative. Overall, this is a lovely book, full of feeling and very well worth reading. A very solid novel which definitely did not feel like a debut. I very much liked it and recommend it.
Gaby's Reviews -Beautiful love story set in the Blue mountains near Sydney in Australia. This is not just a romance: it's a story of loss, family ties and redemption. The author's description of the landscape is vivid and picturesque. The bushfires and intense heat are a metaphor of the passions at stake. Ms. Hale knows how to build up the tension and the chemistry between Bron and Ally rages like a bushfire: uncontrollable, hot and consuming. Overall, a very solid debut novel and a highly recommended romance.
Lex Kent's Reviews - The best way to describe this is a pure romance. While you are reading about characters dealing with a great loss of their loved one, this really is a feel good book. The characters are normal people with real issues. This book is not filled with unnecessary drama and angst, it is a really well written pure romance. I can absolutely recommend this to romance fans. I know people are going to enjoy this. Hale writes really well. This is great for a debut book, and great for a seasoned author. I will not hesitate one bit to read anything else by Hale.
Bronwyn Lee was a woman on a mission. She pressed her cheek flush to the cool wooden floorboards and squinted into the dark void beneath her sister’s dresser, praying to God she would spot a tiny glimmer. That iPhone torch app would have come in handy right about now, Bron thought, before reminding herself that her six-year-old niece Annie hadn’t purposely dropped her phone the night before. The million shards of her phone screen across the kitchen floor weren’t worth even one of Annie’s guilty tears. Regardless, Annie had shed enough tears to buoy a naval ship.
Bron huffed and scooted closer. There was probably a torch in the shed outside, but asking her stepmother Jackie for the key to the shed would lead to nagging questions like, “Why do you need a torch?” or “What is it that you’re looking for?” Bron didn’t have the heart to tell her saintly stepmother she’d misplaced Libby’s ring. Perhaps misplaced was a strong word. Bron couldn’t be completely certain, but she was almost sure that she’d seen the ring in Libby’s jewellery box three months prior when she first came home for Libby’s funeral. She’d stumbled upon the ring and put it aside selfishly for safekeeping, knowing full well Libby would have liked to be buried with it on her finger.
Had she imagined finding the ring? Had she imagined the guilt? Had she dreamt it up on one of those jetlagged, grief-stricken nights after the accident?
The rim of her reading glasses tapped the ironbark floor. Frustrated, she slid the black frames to the crown of her head. It was like Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum under the dresser. She couldn’t see anything past the dusty fort of bobby pins, hair ties and cap-less, half-used lip balms she was sure Libby had unknowingly hoarded since their teenage years.
The grandfather clock chimed on the half hour. Bron stood up and threw her glasses onto Libby’s freshly made bed. She ran a shaky hand across her face. They would all be back soon with Ally, and Bron would no longer have a chance to pull apart her sister’s bedroom in search of the ring. As she blew back a few blond strands which had come loose from her ponytail, her gaze landed on one of the photographs on the dresser. The cheap frame held a picture of Libby, no older than fourteen, and Ally, her arm around Libby. Bron rubbed the pad of her thumb back and forth over the tarnished plate at the bottom of the frame, trying to buff up the first few engraved letters of “Two Peas in a Pod.” She stared into her sister’s adolescent grin and imagined what Libby would think of her quest to find the ring. How dare you not trust my best friend, Libby would chastise. But Bron had never trusted Ally—and Ally had never given her reason to. Bron couldn’t bring herself to feel even a sliver of shame for judging the younger woman. The sad truth was Bron didn’t doubt for a second that Ally wouldn’t pawn Libby’s ring the minute she laid eyes on it. Ally was reckless, wild and careless. Uncontrollable. Her recent track record said it all. Or rather, her parole agreement did.
Just the thought of that precious, albeit fairly inexpensive ring sitting in a glass case of a hockshop in Katoomba town centre made Bron dizzy with rage. She so clearly remembered the day she’d given Libby the ring for her twenty-first birthday. One day, way down the track, she could pass it on to Annie when she turned twenty-one, assuming she could actually find the cursed platinum band in the first place.
She’d already checked the dresser drawers, beneath the mattress, and the pockets of Libby’s clothes, which Bron had shifted to her own closet that morning to give Ally her own space—even if it was in a room which smelled, looked and felt like Libby. Surely Ally would feel it too.
She’d casually asked Jackie about the ring the night before. “Mum, you know that ring I gave Libby? Did she wear it much?” Bron had paused. “She wasn’t wearing it the day of the accident.”
On her way to bed, Jackie had pressed her thin, tired frame against the doorjamb of Libby’s bedroom, watching as Bron emptied the top drawer of Libby’s bedside table. With a yawn, Jackie said she’d often seen the ring lying on the edge of the bathtub in the evening, or it would catch her eye in the morning as the sun streamed in through the kitchen window, the small, silver-encased diamond glittering next to the drying breakfast dishes Libby had washed before leaving for work. “When it wasn’t on Libby’s finger, it was lying around here somewhere, more often than not next to a drain,” Jackie complained with a chuckle and nodded at the jewellery box across the room. “Did you see it in there?”
Bron had bitten the side of her cheek so hard she’d almost drawn blood. “Yep.” It wasn’t a lie. She had seen it. Possibly. Three months ago.
And that was that. Assuming the ring was safe in its jewellery box, Jackie had wished Bron a good night and retired to her bedroom down the hall. Bron had stood there, cursing herself for not placing it somewhere safe the first time she’d seen it. Well, the first time she may have seen it. Without Jackie’s help, she was out of options. She didn’t expect Daniel, her twenty-three-year-old half-brother, to remember a detail as small as the ring on their sister’s finger. She wanted to ask Annie about it. Of course, she wouldn’t be in trouble if she’d taken it, but Bron knew it was unlikely. She hadn’t seen the little girl go near Libby’s bedroom in months.
Bron looked around the room hopelessly. If she couldn’t find it turning Libby’s room upside down, there was little chance Ally would. Better to leave it be, she decided, than to worry her mother or brother over something so materialistic. It was the concern that weighed on her mind each time she thought of the ring—she would seem petty to her family. She’d just lost her beautiful baby sister to a freak car accident, and she was worried about an old ring with a diamond hardly bigger than a grain of sand? Maybe this was the universe’s way of forcing her to readjust her priorities. Perhaps it was perspective, not diamonds, that was a girl’s best friend.
She saw them before she heard them. Through the thin curtains of Libby’s bedroom window, she watched the red Toyota—so old it had served as her very first car—stall at the gate. At the very end of the driveway, past the blue gum trees, she could make out the tall figure of her brother opening the front gate, shooing a barking Tammy away from the gravel path. The familiar, heavy slam of the driver’s door as he got back in reached Bron’s ears through the open window.
They drove toward the house, the golden retriever chasing after them. Bron watched Jackie turn around in the front seat and throw her head back in laughter, probably at something Annie had asked in that painfully earnest manner that only little kids can get away with. Or, quite possibly, Jackie was laughing at Ally.
Sweet, forgiving Jackie had always loved Ally as much as her own children—step-daughters too. Jackie had never made Bron or Libby feel any less her children than Daniel. Daniel, a product of Bron’s father’s second marriage to Jackie, was barely crawling when Libby started fifth grade. At that point, Bron, two years from graduating high school, had initially thought it a blessing when Libby began bringing Ally Shepherd around for dinner, sleepovers, or a swim in the snake-ridden swamp out back—much to Jackie’s terror and their father’s indifference. Bron already had so much on her plate—a part-time job at the bakery, helping Jackie with Daniel, and trying to finish school with grades good enough to take her to all of the places she wanted to go. Finding time to entertain her ten-year-old sister was no longer a priority. But Jackie fawned over Libby’s new friend, and it had sparked Bron’s jealousy, despite her being seventeen. After only a few months into Libby and Ally’s friendship, Ally would show up uninvited on their doorstep after dinner, as though Jackie hadn’t had enough on her plate with a toddler, two teenage girls, and their impatient, stubborn father. Their father had called Ally one of the Lost Girls, always believing Ally’s penchant for endlessly running away from home was juvenile. They all had—at first.
In hindsight, Bron could see she’d been jealous of Ally. After losing her own mother to a heart attack when Bron was fourteen and Libby just seven—god, just a year older than Annie—Bron’s desire for Jackie’s maternal attention had grown. And by simply asking Jackie for another glass of cordial or to stay the night, ten-year-old Ally had struck a nerve in seventeen-year-old Bron.
The Toyota drew to a stop in its usual place just off the circular driveway in front of their two-story Colonial Queenslander. Annie was the first one out of the car, bouncing up the front steps of the wraparound veranda and out of Bron’s line of sight. Not a second later, Annie’s high-pitched voice rang out from downstairs, “Aunty Bron, we’re home!”
Bron jumped as the front door banged dramatically against the bulky iron doorstop. “Ah, shit,” she heard the six-year-old curse quietly. Still focused on the car, Bron rolled her eyes. She’d berated Annie for swearing more times than Jackie had chided her for swinging open the front door too harshly. It was like a never-ending cycle: door crashed, Nanna screamed, Annie swore, and Aunt Bron went bananas. Each time it occurred, Bron grew increasingly concerned about her new role as Annie’s guardian.
She shifted back from the open window and watched her brother, mother and Ally deep in conversation. Ally’s head was turned and it was hard to get a good look at her from Bron’s vantage point, especially with the way the shadow from the veranda roof leaked over the windscreen. Bron moved to the next window, where she could clearly make out Jackie, leaning forward from the backseat. She said something, which prompted Ally to nod slowly, and then Jackie gripped the juncture of Ally’s neck and shoulder reassuringly. So often Jackie had squeezed Bron’s shoulder comfortingly in the last few months that, standing there at Libby’s bedroom window, Bron felt it like a phantom caress.
Annie’s rubber thongs hesitantly flipped and flopped their way up the stairs. “Did you hear that?” Annie asked meekly from the doorway.
“Did I hear what?” Focused on the car, Bron raised a knowing eyebrow.
In the reflection of Libby’s dressing table mirror, she watched Annie bite her lip in an attempt to stifle a laugh. With one last glance down at the car, she crossed the room and playfully snaked her fingers beneath Annie’s armpits. She hoisted her petite frame onto her hip. Annie struggled against her, laughing.
“If I hear you swear one more time today, I’ll empty the water that’s left in the baby pool onto Nanna’s lettuce bed and you won’t swim for a week.”
“Okay, okay! Please put me down!” Annie groaned as Bron padded down the stairs, ignoring the request. “Aunty Bron, please!” she begged, pressing the palms of her hands into the hollow of Bron’s cheeks, the ridges of her cheekbones more prominent than they’d been months ago. “Youse is so bony and it’s real hot!”
“You’re, not ‘youse’,” Bron corrected. “Ewes are female sheep.” She sighed deeply, knowing her efforts were possibly in vain. When she returned to Boston—even if it was just to finalize her affairs—and Annie was left under Daniel and Jackie’s influence, Annie would slip deeper into that cringe-worthy rural Australian dialect.
A familiar, raspy voice floated in on the stifling breeze coming through the open front door. A car door shut and then another. Bron could faintly make out Daniel’s insistence to bring Ally’s bags inside and then the squeak of the car boot opening. With the hand that wasn’t supporting Annie, Bron picked at the thin, dampened cotton between her breasts and ignored the anticipatory flush that broke over her skin.
Ally stepped through the front door first and stopped abruptly when she saw Bron at the base of the staircase. She seemed to struggle for a second, as though she wanted to start with something simple, like hello or how are you? For a second—a split second, really—Bron almost felt sorry for Ally, until her pained expression brightened into that familiar Ally smirk, complete with a raised eyebrow and a single, gorgeously smug dimple.
Annie squirmed against Bron’s side. “Ew, you got sweat on your lip,” she whined.
The smirk split across Ally’s face into a full-fledged grin. Features Bron remembered as somewhat angular were now sharp. Ally’s cheekbones were more defined than Bron’s, her jawline pronounced. Bron had expected her to be…more solid. Ally was almost stick thin, as though she hadn’t eaten properly in weeks. But there was something about the darkness in her eyes—so strangely alike to Libby’s glossy chestnut stare—which eliminated any thought of Ally as frail. If Bron once thought the mere presence of this girl intense, the woman standing before her now was…something else, something entirely new to contend with. At thirty-three, Ally Shepherd was all grown up.
Bron set Annie down, and took in the faded green tattoo sleeve that decorated Ally’s right arm from shoulder to elbow. Typical, Bron thought to herself.
She hadn’t seen Ally since before she left for America. Then, Ally had been barely…twenty-two, perhaps? It had only been three months later when Libby had phoned in tears, telling Bron about the video store robbery, and that, of course, like the time before that, Ally was innocent. Libby had rattled off a number of defences then: Ally was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Ally had just lost her dad, Ally’s family’s motel business was going under, and Ally’s mother was still refusing to even entertain the idea that Ally was a lesbian. But this time Libby must have known the truth. In her tiny Back Bay apartment, waiting for Libby’s inevitable request to wire bail money for Ally, Bron had angrily held the landline so tightly to her ear that her hand had cramped. But the request hadn’t come. Apparently, Bron wasn’t the only Lee sister who’d had the last straw with Ally Shepherd.
Now, standing in the hallway, four inches taller than Bron, Ally was older and very much a grown woman. Bron wondered if she was grateful for another chance—or if it was simply just expected.
They were quiet, listening as Jackie’s and Dan’s voices moved around the back of the house, pandering in baby voices to Tammy’s howls of disappointment at Ally’s sudden disappearance inside. “Where’s she gone, Tam?” Daniel asked the dog. “Where’s Al gone?”
Bron looked down at her niece. “Go open the back door for Nanna, please.”
As Annie ran off, Ally’s gaze unabashedly dropped to Bron’s legs, bare in her short denim cut-offs.
“I’m jealous,” Ally smirked playfully.
Bron quickly licked her lips and shoved her left hand into a pocket of her shorts. “Pardon?” she prompted curtly, hoping the way she leaned against the banister looked as casual as intended.
Ally gestured to her own tight, dark denim jeans. “Next time I decide to spend a five-year holiday behind bars, I’ll be sure to commit a crime that’ll land me there long enough to leave the same season I go in. It’s a fuckin’ sweat bath down here.” Bron tried not to flinch at the profanity, watching intently as Ally ran a hand through her short-cropped, ebony black hair. Ally pinched the material at her thigh. “Thought about chopping these off at the knee.”
Bron pursed her lips. “It’s quite hot. We’re expecting bushfires relatively soon.”
Ally gasped dramatically and her eyes widened playfully in that sarcastic way that had always been so, so Ally. “Well, good thing I’m here now. I was a firey,” she pointed out cockily. “Pretty sure you remember, Bron.”
She did. Ally’s past as a volunteer firefighter had been perhaps her single redeeming quality. “Yes, well…bushfires aren’t anything to joke about,” Bron admonished.
Ally’s expression hazed over. “You think you need to lecture me about bushfires?”
She swallowed in sudden recollection. Her face grew hot at the faux pas and the back of her neck burned uncomfortably. Yes, Ally knew all about fire.
There was that cocky grin again, glazing its way across Ally’s face. “Maybe one day, if you’re lucky,” Ally rasped, “I’ll show you the scars.”
“I see you haven’t lost that sense of humour Libby was so fond of.”
“I see you haven’t lost your Aussie accent. I was worried you were going to sound like a Yank.”
The screen door at the back of the house squeaked open. “Bron! Al’s here!” Jackie’s voice rang out before she stepped into the hall. “Oh! You found her.” She gestured toward the kitchen. “Come in here and have a cold drink.”
Ally held Bron’s stare for a moment before following Jackie.
Daniel held up a small bag. “You want this upstairs, Al?”
Ally hesitated and she looked to Jackie.
“We’ve put you in Lib’s old room,” Jackie said into the fridge. “You don’t mind?”
Reaching into the cupboard for five glasses, Bron watched Ally’s expression in the reflection of the oven glass across the room.
“No,” Ally replied lowly. “Lib’s room is fine.” She cleared her throat as she took a seat at the kitchen table.
Daniel swung the small gym bag full of Ally’s belongings over his shoulder. It was evidently half-empty, the cracking vinyl sunken at its sides. Roughing her hair up, he bent down to kiss the top of her head.
“Get off,” Ally laughed, pushing him away as he took off down the hall.
Bron set the glasses down for Jackie, contemplating the exchange with guarded amusement, trying to remember the last time her brother had been comfortable enough to be so playful with her. She pulled out a chair at the end of the table and sat back.
Ally smiled at her and Bron crossed her legs.
“Lemonade good?” Jackie asked Ally, already pouring her a glass from the plastic Schweppes bottle. She slid the fizzing drink in front of Ally.
Bron took her in. The way Ally held herself was…captivating. The way she splayed herself out in the kitchen chair, relaxed and comfortable, commanded the attention of everybody in the room. At least, it commanded Bron’s attention. Jackie was preoccupied, shouting instructions out the backdoor for Annie to wash up for dinner.
She watched, irritably, as Ally twisted her glass of lemonade, swirling the ring of condensation across the wooden tabletop. She was completely unapologetic for the grief she had caused this family—a family that wasn’t even hers. Bron imagined Ally’s legs, spread apart with the impropriety of a teenage boy. She could almost remember the way Ally’s knees used to tap against hers at dinner when they were kids…
“God,” the rough timber of Ally’s voice started. “Haven’t seen you since before Annie was born. It must have been Christmas of…what…’06?”
Bron looked up, the realisation suddenly dawning upon her that Ally’s question was directed at her.
“Before that I think.”
“Bet Boston’s missing you.”
Bron forced a smile, surprised that Ally seemed to care enough to remember where she now called home. “It is.”
She wasn’t going to give Ally any more than that, not when her parole was the main reason Bron still found herself in the mountains, three months after Libby’s funeral and well into the hot Australian summer.
Bron loathed the Australian summer. The week before, temperatures had spiked to forty degrees Celsius, and she’d dreamed about a snow-clad Boston Common. She’d woken in a sweat, the old rainbow ribbons her newly out-and-proud twenty-year-old self had tied to the bars of her fan fluttering weakly on the pathetic, oscillating breeze. But the night after that had been unbearable. Annie had climbed into her bed midmorning, and Bron, alien to the uninhibited nature of a sleeping child, had laid awake, sweltering as her unconscious niece threw her limbs across the mattress and her aunt like a possessed ragdoll. When Bron finally dozed off around four a.m., she’d had another nightmare: herself, floating naked in Boston’s very shallow and very public Copley Square fountain in broad daylight.
Clearly uncomfortable under Bron’s scrutiny, Ally watched Jackie chase Annie into the laundry to wash her hands for lunch. When Jackie disappeared, Ally craned her neck backward, looking to the stairs for Dan.
Even with a wall between them, Bron knew the second Jackie turned on the high wash tub tap for Annie. The old pipes shuddered violently in the wall between the kitchen and laundry, so much so that Ally flinched, until she put two and two together. Bron would call a plumber to look at the problem before she left for Boston. On just a pension, Jackie had been struggling to make ends meet since her retirement. When Bron had first arrived home, she’d caught Jackie adding water to her jar of anti-ageing face cream to make it go further. That week, as she shopped for groceries in a grief-induced haze, Bron had bought the store out of the face cream in Jackie’s favourite brand.
Ally caught Bron’s gaze again. “How long are you here for?”
“Depends.” On how long it takes me to trust that you won’t do anything stupid when I leave you here with my family.
Ally motioned to the wheezing fan on top of the fridge. “That fan’s not doing a whole lot for us.”
“My apologies if the air-conditioning system in Oberon Women’s Correctional Centre is more to your liking than our ancient appliances.” It hadn’t meant to come out so biting. Bron added a chuckle to soften the blow.
Ally placed her hands behind her head, sat back even further in the chair, and clicked her tongue playfully. Bron tried to shift in her seat, too, but in the heat, the backs of her thighs had already glued themselves to the vinyl base.
“Hey, Ally!” Annie called, steered into the kitchen by Nanna Jackie rubbing vigorously at Annie’s drenched forearms with a hand towel. “You know what I found out while I was washing my hands? Your name is just like mine but you got two Ls and I got two Ns. And I got an ie and you got a y. But it don’t matter ’cause they mostly sound the same, yeah? We’re like twins!”
“We are,” Ally agreed. “Want to see something cool?”
Ally pulled down the right band of her tank top, baring her black bra strap.
Bron raised an eyebrow at Ally’s blatant immodesty, averting her gaze, not giving Ally the satisfaction of appearing startled. Until she saw it. An angry red welt of fresh prison ink.
“That’s my name,” Annie said in wonder, her little fingertips scanning the letters that travelled at least four inches across the right side of Ally’s chest.
Bron fought the urge to roll her eyes. She’d never seen anything so ridiculous in her life. She’d thought parents who got the names of their kids tattooed on their bodies was stupid, but this was something else.
And then it dawned on her. What better way for Ally to weave her way into this family? If she screwed up, made one wrong turn, Bron knew Ally would play the Annie card to get back into Jackie’s good graces. The contract was inked into her skin. The tattoo may have appeared to be healing—a week old at most—but the whole thing just screamed infection.
Annie was off on a roll of interview questions: Had it hurt? Had she cried? Did it still hurt? No? Who did it? Ally did it herself? She was so brave. It seemed Annie had found a new toy to play with. Boring Aunt Bron the children’s book illustrator paled in comparison to decorated deviant Ally.
“Uncle Dan, look,” Annie instructed as Daniel reached into the fridge and pulled out a beer.
“Wow,” Daniel remarked, surprised. “That’s super nice.”
“She did it herself,” Annie informed him.
Pulling out one of the kitchen chairs, Daniel visibly cringed at the redness of Ally’s skin. “I wouldn’t do that, not even for you, Ann.”
Bron sipped her lemonade between clenched teeth as she listened to Ally and her brother talk about their plans for the upcoming work week—how many homeowners had booked Daniel for painting jobs and how many quotes they’d give before the end of the week. Weeks before, Ally had taken up Daniel’s offer to work in his business to satisfy the requirements of her parole agreement. Bron hoped to God that Ally wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise Daniel’s reputation as one of the finest house painters in Katoomba.
With a quick glance around the room to see if anyone was watching her, Annie stood up on her chair, turned to the fan, and drew her singlet up over her head, clearly as bored with the conversation as Bron was. The vinyl squeaked as her tiny feet twisted on the clammy surface. “It’s so hot, Ally!” Annie sighed deeply, throwing her singlet to the floor.
“Be careful,” Bron instructed.
“Remind you of someone?” Jackie wiggled her eyebrows at Ally.
Ally grinned. “Yep.”
“Did you have a swimming pool in prison?” Annie wondered, the golden blond strands of her long hair flying about her doll-like face.
Bron let out a chuckle.
Ally shot Bron a pointed stare. “No, babe,” she answered, her gaze locked on Bron, “but I took a lot of nice long cold showers.”
“Well, bad luck for you then,” Annie sighed. “Uncle Dan only lets us have two-minute showers ’cause there’s pretty much no water ’cause of the drought! Better go back to prison!”
“Annie!” Jackie reprimanded.
“That was rude!”
“I was only joking!”
Bron cleared her throat. “Annie, can you do me a favour and go pop some ice from the back fridge into Tammy’s bucket?”
Annie sighed. “’Kay, but I’m not putting my shirt back on. Too hot.”
Bron smiled softly. “Deal.”
“She’s been a bit mouthy since the accident,” Jackie whispered when they heard the suction of the back fridge pop. “Just tell her off if she gets smart with you.”
“She’s all right,” Ally said, brushing Annie’s rudeness aside.
Jackie shook her head. “She needs to be put back in her place.”
Bron couldn’t help but pipe up. “Her psychologist says it’s completely normal. Expected, even. She was in a car accident and she lost her mother. Give her a break, Mum.”
Jackie took a seat at the table. “And what do you think Lib would have to say about the cheek she’s been giving?”
“Libby had a mouth on her,” Ally cut in. “And she turned out just fine.”
“Annie doesn’t have a mouth on her,” Bron insisted.
“I remember when Libby came to bail me out…the first time,” Ally chuckled.
Dan must have kicked Ally under the table, because suddenly they were both laughing and Jackie was telling them to stop mucking around. Suddenly Bron felt like she had no place in this comfortable, relaxed family dynamic.
“Anyway,” Ally continued, “as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted,” she said with a wink at Dan, “Lib gave the screw so much shit that the fucker decided to leave me in there three hours after she handed over the cash. I could hear her from out back. Can still hear her. ‘I went all the way into town to take out two bloody grand and you’re still givin’ me shit.’”
Jackie and Dan laughed politely, but the room slowly fell silent. They all listened to Annie’s distant voice instructing Tammy. “Drink ya water, matey.”
“I never did pay Lib back that bail money,” Ally whispered, her eyes fixed on the bottom of her glass.
Jackie reached for Ally’s hand and squeezed her fingers. “Love, what’s done is done. She wouldn’t have minded…wouldn’t have given it a second thought.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Bron interrupted. “It wasn’t Libby’s money.”
Ally looked up. “Huh?”
Bron had waited twenty-three years for this moment. “It was my money she used to bail you out.” She let her words sink in for a moment before she added, “The first time.”
Ally squirmed and sat up a little straighter. “It was yours?”
“Uh-huh. And it wasn’t two grand. It was three grand she borrowed from me. I drove her into town, and I took the money out on my credit card.”
For a long moment, nobody said anything.
“You were paying off uni as you went. Where the hell did you get three grand?” Jackie wondered, her greying eyebrows fussing together with worry.
“The money I’d been saving for New York. Plus some more I took out on credit.”
At the other end of the table, the tendons in Ally’s neck tensed.
“Never mind,” Bron muttered. “A year later, I had it back.”
Ally’s gaze shot up again. “So she paid you back?” she asked, relieved.
How convenient, Bron considered, for Ally to think her debt died with loyal, hard-working Libby. Bron leaned forward in her chair and ran her finger along the rim of her glass. “No. After approximately two hundred four a.m. bakery shifts I had it back.”
She met Ally’s stare. The wooden legs of Ally’s chair screeched as she stood up. She pushed it back under the table roughly. In a second, she was gone from the room.
“Why can’t you just let it go?” Dan huffed.
She shrugged and glanced at Jackie. The pain and disappointment swimming in greyish-blue eyes made her look away quickly.
Heavy boots pounded back down the stairs.
Bron jumped when Ally slammed her hand—and a small wad of fresh, crisp fifty-dollar notes—down on the kitchen table in front of her. “There’s three hundred to start and I’ll get you the rest next week,” Ally rasped.
Bron swallowed nervously, thrown off her game.
Ally kicked her chair back out and slid down into it, her arms crossed tightly across her full breasts, across the tattoo. “Just let me know how much interest you’ve calculated over the years, Bron,” Ally spat. “Because clearly, you’ve given it a lot of thought.”
The headlights of a neighbour’s car returning home threw a weak glow along the path of the pitch-black driveway. With Tammy under her feet, Bron’s toes gripped her thongs tighter as she watched her step down the steepest part of the driveway. How on earth had they sped down it on their bikes every day as kids and not once toppled over the handlebars?
She held Daniel’s phone up, knowing she most likely wouldn’t be able to get a decent signal until she reached the gate. Two bars of reception—enough to call an ambulance, but not enough to check the messages left on her home phone in Boston. She groaned, picturing her shattered phone again.
She smiled at the home screen of Daniel’s phone, his girlfriend Carly, beaming, at her university graduation last month. Daniel’s arm wrapped around her robed shoulders, pretending to bite at the gold tassel of her graduation cap. Despite his childishness in the picture, the suited man in the picture was anything but immature.
The last time Bron had been home, Daniel had been studying for his Higher School Certificate. Now twenty-three, he had his own painting business and was off every night with Carly. They seemed serious but Jackie had a different impression, which she’d expressed to Bron in confidence. Carly was already furthering her studies in graduate school in the city, while Daniel was a painter with a backup plan to head out further west rather than coastal east if there was ever a shortage of work in the mountains. They wouldn’t last, Jackie believed. But to Bron they seemed happy, in love, and as depressing as it seemed, mature enough to make sacrifices for each other. She wouldn’t be surprised if they were engaged by Christmas. There’s an eighteen-year age difference between us, Bron thought, and yet I’ve never had a relationship based on mutual compromise.
Bron doubted forty was going to be her lucky year in the romance department, because it had been miserable in every other respect. Since losing Libby, things had been on a downward spiral. The first challenge had been getting Annie’s grief and anxiety under control—doctor’s appointments, counselling appointments, spending the first few hours of each Monday morning in Annie’s kindergarten classroom until she’d adjusted enough to let Bron leave without having a meltdown. Bron’s commitment to her family meant not only had she been forced to postpone the start of her new project with Yellowstone Books, she’d also had to ask MIT for additional time to think over their teaching job offer. And just when things had finally been getting back on track, Rae had decided to call things off with her, a month from their one-year anniversary.
And now there was Ally.
As she locked the home screen, she took note of the time. Three minutes from eleven and Ally still wasn’t home. Bron had been stupid to think there was even a remote possibility that Ally would respect her curfew—and Bron.
Ally had washed and wiped up after dinner, bragging all the while about the autonomy the officers had granted her in the prison kitchen. After being thanked profusely by Jackie for refusing to allow anybody else to clean up, Ally pulled the first payback card.
“I’m going to take a walk.”
All three adults in the room spun around to look at the clock. 9:36. Exactly twenty-four minutes until curfew. The rule was outlined on the second page of her parole agreement.
“Can I come?” Annie begged, heartbroken when Bron told her it was way past her bedtime, and then instructed her to go and change into her pyjamas and brush her teeth.
“Well don’t be long,” Jackie urged Ally.
As Bron tucked Annie into bed and kissed her goodnight, she watched from Annie’s bedroom window as Ally closed the front gate at the end of the driveway, leaving a whimpering Tammy inside, and headed in the direction of Katoomba town centre.
An hour and a half later, she still wasn’t home. Bron was anxious. Jackie had been the one to write the letter of commitment to help Ally in her reintroduction to society. Along with their address, Jackie’s name and the signed letter were in the parole plan. Since Jackie wasn’t able to drive the streets in the dark in search of Ally, was it Bron’s responsibility? Could she get into trouble if Ally’s parole officer somehow found out that Ally had breached parole?
She kicked at a rock on the path and Tammy chased it. She tried to imagine where Ally might have taken herself on foot. Echo Point, the popular tourist lookout, was a far distance from the end of the main street of Katoomba. Although the time of night would blanket the green valley in complete darkness, the view from the cliff-top platform was nothing short of magical—The Three Sisters, set against the blackness of the night sky, illuminated from below by hugely powered lights, their brown rock faces almost golden.
It was stunning at night, but Bron preferred the rock formation in daylight. If she ventured down there tomorrow, right at the crack of dawn before the heat set in and the busloads of tourists arrived, she would be able to see the silver mist the eucalyptus trees breathed across the canyon, giving the Blue Mountains its colourful namesake. There was something calm about the view from the top. The day after Libby’s funeral, Bron had taken Annie down to the lookout, the two of them bundled up in beanies and scarves. She had given her orphaned niece two dollars to keep her occupied with one of the telescopes, and then leaned against the railing, looking out at The Three Sisters and thinking about how there had once been seven, and how they’d eroded away long ago.
Reaching the gate, Bron watched another reception bar light up. Three bars. It wasn’t going to get much better than that. She wasn’t surprised to hear the monotonous recording inform her that she had three new messages since she hadn’t bothered to dial through for at least a week. She deleted the first two, old work messages she’d already received via email. The third was a charity she’d donated to months ago and would undoubtedly hear from for the rest of her life. Like last week, there was nothing from Rae. Bron didn’t know how she felt about that.
“Calling the cops on me?”
She pivoted on the spot. Ally shut the gate behind her and crouched down to roughhouse with Tammy. Bron’s gaze dropped to Ally’s thighs. Lean muscle strained against the unhemmed, fraying line of her shorts, which two hours before had been jeans. Bron rolled her eyes and hung up on the message service.
“Enjoy your walk?” she asked sarcastically.
“Yep,” Ally played. “I expected you to wait up for me, but you didn’t have to come all the way out here—”
“Look, mind your curfew next time. Aren’t you grateful you can serve the last two years of your sentence in relative freedom? Pulling crap like what you’ve done tonight… It’s not fair to us when we’ve just gone and stuck our necks out for you, okay? I don’t appreciate being played.”
Ally straightened. “Okay. Sorry,” she added reluctantly. “I’m not playing games.”
Bron couldn’t be bothered starting another argument, so she started the uphill walk back to the house, Ally falling in step beside her. Considering Ally thought she’d been down by the gate waiting for her, Bron said, “There’s no reception up at the house. I had to check my messages on Daniel’s phone since mine is broken.”
“Yeah, Daniel told me. Did you need to call the boyfriend?”
She slowed. “Excuse me?” she asked in utter confusion, her gaze searching Ally’s face for any hint of jest.
Ally looked down at her, her face blank. “What?”
Bron shook her head. How on earth had their signals crossed so spectacularly? Sudden, deep upset erupted within her. Had the entire family managed to conveniently omit the minor detail that she’d been dating women since…forever? “I…I don’t have a boyfriend.”
A slow smirk broke out on Ally’s face. “I’m fucking with you, Bron. Libby told me you’re a dyke ages ago, like back in the Stone Age.”
Bron didn’t know which maddened her more—Ally’s knack for catching her off guard, or Ally rekindling the horrible sadness invoked by Bron’s family’s resistance to her sexual identity. She pursed her lips and picked up the pace.
“I’ve known a lot longer than Lib, though,” Ally continued. “I watched you check out Desert Hearts from the video store every second weekend.”
“Twice. I only rented it twice.”
Ally chuckled. “Well, I think the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman poster on your bedroom wall gave you away too. I figured it was either narcissism or lesbianism that made you pin it up.”
“I’ve always thought you look just like her. Blue eyes, blond hair. Pint-sized, but just like her.”
“Oh. Well…thank you.”
When the silence that had settled upon them obviously began to make her uncomfortable, Ally spoke up. “So the main street is still pretty much the same.”
She hummed her disagreement. “Something’s always different each time I come home.”
“How often is that?”
“Up until now? Every three years or so.”
“I’ve been away four. Still looks the same to me.”
Don’t bite, don’t bite…
“I am surprised to see there are still three sisters. Felt like I’d been in for so long, that there’d only be one left by the time I got out.”
So she had been down to the lookout, not town, not her mother’s house.
“Look,” Ally started, pinching at the bottom of her singlet in an invitation to the cooling breeze. “About the money—”
Bron sighed. “We can figure it out later, Ally.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Sure?”
Running a hand through her hair, Bron nodded.
“Your hair is longer,” Ally commented. “Haven’t seen it so long in a while.”
At the certainty that Ally’s gaze was on her, apprehension broke across Bron’s skin, hot and unwarranted. When they reached the front steps, Ally reached out and grabbed the back of Bron’s elbow. Her grip was firm, her eyes glassy. She licked her lips. “Can I ask you something?”
Ally paused at the granted permission. Bron’s gaze fell lower to where the tendons in her throat tensed. “Where is Libby?”
“The Anglican Cemetery in Leura,” Bron said, softly.
“The one on the back road?”
“Yes. She’s next to Mum and Dad.”
“Can you…Do you think you could take me there sometime this week?”
Her anxiety prickled at the request. Although Jackie had taken Annie each weekend since the funeral, Bron hadn’t been to Libby’s grave since she watched her brother and uncles lower Libby into the ground.
“The grave…It’s a bit of a mess. We had a few weeks of rain. It’s sinking. We’ve been adding bags of potting mix every week or so, but it’s a matter of just…waiting for the grass to grow. Mum asked the groundskeepers to have a look and see what they could do, but the morons just went and dumped huge clumps of clay on top. That only made it worse. The headstone isn’t in yet either.” She paused. “Maybe you should wait a bit.”
“I don’t mind,” Ally assured her. “I’d like to go sooner than later.”
Bron nodded. “I’ll take you on Sunday.”
“I’d really appreciate that.” Ally’s unfocused gaze dropped to where her fingers had lightly wrapped themselves around Bron’s wrist. “Sorry,” she said, jerking her hand away.
Quietly, they made their way inside. In the semidarkness of the end of the hall, Bron locked the front door behind them. As Ally stood beside her, bent over at the waist and peeling off her boots, Bron inhaled her scent. It wasn’t perfume, of course. It was maybe cocoa butter or vanilla. Something else too. She couldn’t place it, and she couldn’t remember it.
Bron guessed Ally had recently had a haircut, judging by the short, clean hairline at the back of her neck. Her gaze ran over Ally’s muscular back, admiring the prominent vertebrae—one, two, three—until they disappeared beneath the singlet. Her skin was firm. Lovely. The sudden impulse to reach out and touch it made the hairs stand up at the back of her own neck, and she quickly looked away.
“I might have a shower if that’s okay,” Ally whispered as she dropped her boots at the mat next to the infamous iron doorstop.
“Yep,” Bron said shortly, kicking off her thongs. “Night.”
The kitchen light trickled through the house. Barefoot, Bron padded down the hall, the floorboards cool beneath her feet. Jackie sat at the kitchen table in her nightgown, studying a barely inked crossword. She had moved the fan down from the fridge, and it wheezed on the table in front of her, the corners of the magazine flapping as the fan oscillated. Bron leaned against the cool doorframe and crossed her arms.
“Get reception?” Jackie asked.
Her pen met the paper forcefully as she scribbled each letter into the boxes of a vertical column. A wave of guilt flushed over Bron. Upsetting her mother brought her no pleasure. “Better than last night.”
“Want a cuppa?” Jackie asked, still refusing to look up from the magazine.
“Nah, I’m off to bed. Just wanted to say goodnight.”
She waited for a moment, and when it was obvious Jackie wasn’t about to start on her about the money fiasco earlier, she turned to leave.
“What’s a twelve letter word for judgmental?” Jackie murmured. “Starts with s.”
She tapped her slim fingers against the doorframe, thinking. “Supercilious?”
Jackie glanced up over the rim over her glasses.
She rolled her eyes, feeling ridiculous. “Okay. Good one. I hear you. I’m exhausted.”
“Are you going to apologise to Ally?”
She ran her tongue along the front of her teeth and appraised her stepmother. “Maybe.”
Jackie looked back down at the page, obviously unamused.
She swallowed over the lump in her throat. “I can’t find Libby’s ring. I’m almost certain it was in her jewellery box, but it’s not there anymore.”
Jackie set her pen down and pushed her reading glasses up onto her head. “The one you gave her?”
“Do you think Annie has it?”
“I have no idea. I don’t think so.”
“It’ll turn up, Bron.”
“Yeah. Night, Mum.”
She laid awake long enough to see the red digits of her bedside clock flick over to three thirty-two a.m. She rolled over for what felt like the hundredth time and realized she could hear footsteps—tiny footsteps—making their way down the hall. She smoothed her hand over the cold top sheet and waited for her door to creak open.
It was funny the way her heart had learned to swell at the anticipation of Annie. Energetic Annie after school in the playground, sleepy Annie at the breakfast table, or frustrated, exhausted Annie in the early hours of the morning.
But her door didn’t open. Footsteps continued down the end of the hall, to Libby’s old room.
“Annie?” Ally whispered through the wall, her voice hoarse with sleep.
“My room’s real hot,” Annie groaned loudly and Ally shushed her.
“Can I sleep in Mummy’s room with you?”
Bron raised an eyebrow at her niece’s carefully executed, guilt-trip of a question before the muffled voices went quiet.
Bron sat up, breathing a sigh of relief as a cool, early morning southerly washed over her clammy skin. A flutter on her work desk caught her eye. With the window open, her draft pages were catching flight.
She threw back the covers and picked up Page Two from the rug. She looked down at the draft. She wasn’t happy with it—at all. What on earth had the art history department at MIT been thinking when they’d selected her teaching application? She’d drawn with more imagination and precision in her first year of university. There was still so much work to do before she could post first draft photocopies to the city on Friday afternoon.
She pinned the pages down with one of the snow globes she’d taken from Libby’s room when she’d cleaned it out for Ally. The ornament was so old that the water had marked a putrid brown circular stain at the top of the globe. She remembered buying it on her first trip to New York. She remembered wrapping it in three pairs of socks, shoving those socks into the epicentre of her enormous suitcase, hoping that the souvenir wouldn’t break before she got it home to her little sister. She shook it. The discoloured, once-white flakes were stuck, clumped where miniature Radio City Music Hall met inch-long Central Park.
Just as the breeze picked up, she heard giggling from Libby’s bedroom. She sighed, irritated by the way her body betrayed her and allowed the sting of rejection to cramp in her chest. Pressing a hand against the fly screen to ensure it had no intention of dislodging and sailing down to the veranda like it had the week before, she gathered her hair to one side and sank back into her age-old mattress.
Everything was still the same as it had been yesterday, and at the same time, it was all so different. The ageing house still creaked with the swelling heat, and those god-awful rainbow ribbons still floated on humid air. But with Ally’s arrival everything had been thrown off balance, and Bron wasn’t sure she could find her way back to the careful routine she’d spent every ounce of her energy creating the last few months. Intuition and its ugly twin, experience, pestered her mind, slurring that history was going to repeat itself. Bedtimes and curfews were going to be the very least of her worries.