by Venetia Di Pierro
Fleeing Melbourne and her broken relationship, Gloria Grant still has one ace up her sleeve—a job offer to work with traumatized horses in Wyoming. But instead of blissful mountain air and fulfilling ranch work, she finds a family ruined by tragedy and a ranch owner who refuses to let Gloria near her horses.
After a tragic event, Lo Ballantyne has no interest in riding her horses any longer. And she certainly doesn’t want to let anyone close—especially not a stranger from Australia. But when Gloria stubbornly refuses to leave, her free spirit and the natural beauty around them begin to break through Lo’s walls.
Though Gloria tries to bury her feelings for Lo she knows she sees her own desire reflected in Lo’s eyes. The sensible thing to do is let her go. But Gloria rarely does the sensible thing…
GCLS Goldie Awards
The Lines of Happiness — Finalist, Debut Novel.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I always wanted to write a book set in the horse world. The Lines of Happiness combines lots of things I love into one story; romance, nature, animals. Growing up, I had horses and always longed to live on a beautiful property. I see the country landscape as an ever turning piece of art, changing through the seasons and the animals that inhabit it as part of the beauty."
—Venetia Di Pierro
Della B. - I sank down into The Lines of Happiness and allowed myself to wallow in the fullness of the language. The story of grief, loss and discovering love in an unlikely place is exquisitely written. It reminds me of the elegance of Jane Rule’s writing in her novel Desert of the Heart. Di Pierro must be blessed with a third eye as her novel speaks of life, grief and love in meaningful poignancy and perception.
Underneath it all, The Lines of Happiness is a haunting love story slowly evolving from the devastation bequeathed one family. It is not a typical romance novel encompassing endless activities and interactions between the main characters. The Lines of Happiness is a deep dive into our motivations and self-awareness as we fall in love. Something I am sure most of us have forgotten over time. This is an essential reminder.
Claire E. - A wonderfully told, delicate story of grief and healing, of both people and horses following an unspeakable tragedy. I liked the characters who develop slowly before our eyes in the way that we would get to know people. We get more inner dialogue from Australian Gloria who has run away from her life in Australia to help with the horses but also helps the grieving, Dolores. I enjoyed the space to take time with language and experience deeper emotions in this book.
Nutmeg - The Lines of Happiness is a beautiful but poignant tale that speaks of loss, bravery in the arduous seasons of healing and a lasting encounter with love when it’s least unexpected.
Betty H. - The characters make this tale something special. Both the main and secondary characters are well-developed. I became quite invested in Lo and Gloria especially. They made the novel a must read for me. If you are into deeply serious, thought-provoking love stories, then pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed.
Henrietta B. - Lush and poignant are the two words which come immediately to mind to describe this debut novel. The writing itself is lush, luxurious, and brimming with wonderful, exquisite language, images, rural landscapes and rural life, horses and emotional depth. A real little gem of a book lovingly edited and polished. The story is poignant with loss, trauma, grief and coming to terms with it…The author doesn’t succumb to the quick and easy “solutions” and stays away from the temptation of “love heals all”.
Cheryl S. - This author really knows how to take her time and build a story. The dialog is natural and very insightful. Descriptions are clear, important and not overdone. This is the first book I have read by this author and I will definitely look for other of her books.
Anna S. - Venetia Di Pierro wrote a beautiful story about loss, grief and finding love and hope when you’re close to giving up.
Only that morning Gloria had been folded over a donut and gritty coffee in the airport lounge, waiting for her flight departing Melbourne to be called for boarding. She had spent the long-haul flight and every stopover with herself and she was getting sick of her own company. By Jackson Hole Airport, she was trying to use this as evidence to convince herself that everyone she’d run away from would also be relieved, but it was a tenuous line she was drawing. The more distance she put between her future and her past, the better. Being on the road was easier, the bus—so different from the buses back home—full of locals with their TV-like accents and the foreign scenery a distraction from the on-again, off-again love affair she was having with herself. She was strong and independent. No, she was weak and cowardly. It continued beneath the dirty plastic of the bus depot shelter as she waited for the taxi to take her to her destination, a place she could only imagine based on films and books she had read as a child. The thought made her heart skitter and sent her longing back across oceans toward a home she couldn’t go back to. She jerked her head as the bus officer leaned out of his building to wave and point toward a cab. Gloria picked up her suitcase and made her way to what she hoped would be the final journey into a new life.
It was just her luck to get a chatty driver, a thin nervous man who kept restlessly flicking radio stations and stopping midsentence to change topic, then double back to his original subject. He was still going as they left suburbia behind, making Gloria long for the anonymity of the bus with its sooty language of squeals and hisses. Again, there was an abrupt turn of conversation, and the driver craned around to look at her, his milky brown eyes finding hers for long enough that Gloria was nervous he would swerve off the road. “You heard about it, I guess? I mean, if you’re going there you know. Quite a while ago now, but it’s still fresh. You never really get over something like that.” She didn’t confirm that she knew, but he continued anyway, glancing at the road ahead then back at her in the rearview mirror. “The family, my father went to school with Peter’s father. A good family, even though I don’t really know them personally—well, just a bit—you hear things, you know? It’s a shame what happened to the little one.”
“The little one?” Gloria echoed.
“Dolores used to be so…robust, that’s it. A good-looking lady, too, but I don’t think she’s left the ranch since. What I heard is they ain’t opening up the guesthouses this spring. A real shame, because it brought a lot of tourism to the area too, see? Now, I shouldn’t pry, but makes me wonder if they might open them up again. That why you headed there?”
“Not exactly.” Gloria’s straight eyebrows pulled together and she looked back out the window at the green stretch of land. She’d forgotten how small towns worked, the way gossip scorched the ground like wildfire. She was curious about the family she would soon be living among, but she knew the value of privacy so she didn’t provoke further dialogue on the matter.
“If you look up ahead to the left you should see it. Something, isn’t it? Look at all that corn! Do you know how many products contain corn syrup? Much more than you’d think.”
The car carried them down a hill, and there in the expanse of blue-green was a house, set back behind long fields, the mountains glowering shadowy in the background. Along one side of a hill was a row of evenly spaced wooden cabins of varying sizes, and beyond them impossibly neat rows of green maize leaves curling their way toward the sun.
Gloria’s stomach pulled tighter on the knot it had been forming. The house in the distance was becoming a reality. She felt in her pocket for the dog-eared letter that had kept her company since she’d left Melbourne. Although it didn’t say much, it provided tangible reassurance that there would be something to catch her on the other side of her journey.
“You’re not here for a vacation then?” the driver asked.
The driver’s eyes found Gloria’s, but she looked out the window at the black pines against the skyline. He drew a breath, but something stopped him and he left the rest of his thought unsaid. The road continued to roll away, bearing them closer to the ranch. The driver—he’d said his name was Sam or Steve but she couldn’t remember—burst into conversation again, the way someone might burst into song, something about a hot air balloon shaped like a hotdog. Outside, horses grazing in the fields flicked their ears at the passing car but didn’t stir, and overhead the sky arched a thoughtful blue, pulling the land in close and dappling the ground in cloud shadow. The car’s indicator clicked despite the emptiness around them, and they turned onto a dirt road. Above, a large wooden sign hanging on rusty chains from two towering poles declared the property Heaven’s End.
Gloria rolled the window down, the smell of wild grass and cold mountain air rushing at her, searing her nostrils and catching in her lungs as though they’d never breathed before. She felt lost under the vastness of it all, and it was terrifying and exactly what she wanted. It felt good to let someone else do the driving, and she didn’t even mind as the car sped a little too fast down the dirt road, slowing abruptly as the brown house that had seemed like a wooden toy from the road loomed over them. It had arrived at her so fast that she hadn’t gathered her thoughts, so she hastily opened the letter and scanned the top lines again. A rangy, spotted dog wandered out to investigate and Gloria pitched forward as the car halted to allow it passage. Rather than traveling the next few yards toward the wooden porch, the driver pulled on the handbrake and turned expectantly toward Gloria.
“That’ll be forty-two dollars, miss.”
“Oh, they said…” She looked toward the entrance to the house. “I hope someone’s home.” She’d been puzzling over the cab fare on and off since before she’d even left the bus. She still hadn’t drawn a conclusion other than the letter said they would take care of all her expenses, including travel, a big draw when she was traveling all this way. Forty-two dollars was a lot of money, close to all that she had.
Beside the house was a beautiful oak tree, and hanging from one of its outstretched arms was a tire knotted to a long rope. Gloria suddenly wanted to know about the “little one,” but before she could ask, the screen door flapped open and a thin woman appeared clutching a long knitted cardigan around herself. She slipped into leather boots by the door and clipped down the pine steps to greet them. Gloria opened the car door and stepped out, her legs feeling weak on firm ground. She smiled and kept it pasted to her face even though the woman didn’t return the gesture. A flash of déjà vu gripped her, pulling her back through her memories to place the woman’s face. She drew a blank, but the feeling persisted.
“Sorry, we’re not taking guests this spring.” The woman’s hazel eyes were guarded and she placed a soothing hand on the dog’s neck as he came to stand beside her. Her voice was like a slurp of treacle, full and slow, but her face had a sharp look which belied her gentle tone. Her skin had the yellow undertone of a suntan left to fade, fine freckles dusting the bridge of her straight nose, and her messy hair was a mixture of reds and golds that reminded Gloria of autumn. Disheveled as she was, her movements carried an unselfconscious grace that instantly made Gloria conscious of her own gawkish actions.
“No…I’m Gloria Grant.” Gloria hoped the words would be the magic salve to soothe the confusion, but she could see by the woman’s expression that it only added to it.
The woman blinked at Gloria for a moment, then looked out toward the road, then back at Gloria. Her long fingers stroked the dog’s neck thoughtfully. Behind them the driver opened the door and came around to retrieve Gloria’s suitcase from the trunk. The seconds stretched before she addressed Gloria. “Did Peter tell you to come?”
Gloria reached into her jacket pocket to retrieve the worn piece of paper. Her hands shook as she unfolded it. “Here.” She held it toward the woman, but the woman glanced at it without taking it.
“Oh, Jesus.” She took a deep breath and looked out over the fields as though searching for the fortitude to help her deal with what she had to say. “I’m sorry to tell you that you’ve come out here under false pretenses.” Her gaze returned, falling to Gloria’s suitcase with its airline tags still clutched in the driver’s hand. She sighed. “But I think I can see what’s happened and I guess you’d better come inside.”
Sam, or Steve, glanced anxiously between the two of them, quieter than he had been the whole drive, one hand scratching his forearm although Gloria was sure nothing was itching him except the awkwardness of the moment. The woman’s eyes flashed with understanding. “Give me a moment and I’ll find payment. Steven, how much do we owe you?” Steve mumbled a figure and the woman shook her head to herself as she turned and resolutely clomped back up the stairs.
Gloria stood by the car, watching the wind rippling through the long grass and feeling as though her heart might be swept away with it. Helpless humiliation was a feeling from childhood that she avoided visiting but which stubbornly seemed to find her. She turned to the driver. “It’s okay, I’ll fix you up.” She put her hand into her pocket and pulled out the last wad of notes she had.
The screen door banged again. “No, here. If Peter caused this mess, he can damn well clean it up.” The woman was holding a fistful of notes. “Steven, how is your mother?”
“Doing good since the treatment, thanks for remembering, Dolores.”
The woman nodded. “Glad to hear it.” She looked up at Gloria and said curtly, “I’m Dolores, but please call me Lo.” She pronounced it “Low.” Despite her messy hair and odd arrangement of clothing, her voice had a steady authority.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Gloria.” She realized she’d already said that but didn’t add that she was also called Lo, sometimes Glo, by some of her friends. She felt she was occupying enough of this woman’s territory.
As the taxi drove away, Gloria felt as though she would disappear like vapor into the clouds above. Instead, she followed Lo up the steps and into the shade of the veranda. Lo kicked the boots from her feet. “You surprised me so much I didn’t even check for critters in my boots.”
Critters, Gloria thought. If she hadn’t known she was in wild country, she did now.
Inside the house was the creaking stillness of a tall ship set adrift on mild waters. There was pine everywhere—the floorboards, the walls, the rafters. It was a living thing lying dormant, just like its mistress. Lo looked to be in her mid to late thirties but her measured gestures suggested someone who was tired. Gloria thought of what the driver had said about the little one—a child—and felt like an intruder into her sleeping world. The thought depressed her. Lo.
In a surprisingly cheery kitchen with paintings of cowboys and cowponies streaking across yellow pastures, the light falling in creamy slabs through the expansive windows that called in the wild fields, Lo let go of the handful of cardigan she had been clutching to her chest and folded herself down onto a stool at the long peninsula. She was all loose limbs and angles beneath baggy clothes. She indicated to the seat closest to her. The last thing Gloria wanted to do was sit down again but she did anyway. Despite Lo’s languid pose, her eyes were heavy on Gloria, letting her shift uncomfortably as she glanced at Lo then away again, finding things to land on like a buzzing fly, the jar of wilting chives on the counter, the newspaper folded neatly at one end of the long wooden table, the window with its generous view. She was about to comment on the beauty surrounding them, just to break the silence, when Lo spoke.
“So, Gloria, you can tell me…what’s Peter at now? Are you a shrink?”
Gloria let out a huff of nervous laughter. “I guess you could say that.”
Lo’s brown brows shot up to meet the strands of coppery hair that had fallen across her forehead. “An accent. And from which continent have you appeared? One with caches of legal sedatives? Or are you going to pry open my skull and peer into my mind? I’m an unwilling patient you know.”
Gloria smiled. Despite Lo’s hostile greeting, she could sense a warmth and generosity of spirit lurking underneath. “You’re safe with me. I only treat horses.”
Lo smiled, just for a second. A flash of teeth across bloodless lips. “Australian. Well, I see my husband has had to cast his net across the Pacific Ocean to catch a willing fish. What has he told you?”
“That he’s prepared to do what it takes to repair the damage. Two horses, both in need of rehabilitation and Grand Prix training. I was under the impression you had dressage horses. I really wouldn’t know what to do with Western horses. Training-wise, I mean.”
Lo raised her eyebrows again. “Western horses?”
Gloria gestured out toward the fields. “What you have here. They’re beautiful, but you may as well get a local to train your horses for you. No point flying me in.” To Gloria’s ears her accent sounded flat, pedestrian.
“I don’t know what Peter told you, but I’m done with dressage. The horses he’s talking about, they are down the back end of the property. Kip looks in on them, but I don’t want to see them. Peter has never been interested in the horses and he doesn’t need to start feigning interest now.” The lilting twang had taken on an edge. “It’s a shame you’ve come all this way because Peter can’t help but intervene in what is becoming increasingly less his business. He’s barely here, so it seems you and I have been thrust together in a most uncomfortable way. I don’t covet company, and I don’t want to think about the horses, much less have someone here handling them.”
Gloria rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. She felt incredibly tired all of a sudden. “Okay then, what do we do?” She remembered how her mother used to say the best way to handle a big problem was to break it down into manageable tasks. What they would be in this situation, she couldn’t begin to imagine.
Lo studied Gloria’s face for a moment. “You’ve come all this way. I guess Peter has offered you a decent wage?”
Gloria had to admit that he had, even though she didn’t reveal how she had been banking on that first paycheck coming in soon. She had been relying on a place to stay and a regular income. After the breakup with Mike, home as she’d known it didn’t exist anymore. She’d walked away with nothing but a suitcase and her dignity.
“Dammit, I really hate it when he does this!” Lo’s chin dropped to her chest and there was a long pause where Gloria could almost hear the debate going on inside Lo’s head. She finally looked up. “He knows what I’m like, see, that’s what makes it worse.” She scrutinized Gloria again, this time her eyes casting all over her in a clear assessment of aspect and character, making Gloria conscious of her travel-staled appearance. “I can tell you’re not a bad type, it’s not about that, but you can’t stay on here.”
Gloria had been squeezing her hands together and they flung open, releasing a butterfly of anxiety. “Can I at least speak to Peter? Sorry, but this was not what I was expecting. I’ve left everything I have—had—behind to come here because I thought there was a job.”
“Cry me a river, darlin’.” Lo folded her arms.
Gloria could hear the blood rushing through her own ears. She stared a second longer, her mouth almost hanging open in disbelief, before standing and taking the handle of her suitcase. There were a million thoughts churning mud in her stomach. How to get home being the loudest, and what a rash idiot she was coming in a close second. “Can you at least take me back to the airport?” She was loath to admit she’d arrived with about $60 in her pocket, but she managed to trip the fat, furry words from her mouth. “I don’t have any money.” She’d thought back home, scurrying through the house in her underwear, throwing clothes into a suitcase in the half light of a new strange day, she’d slumped to the bottom of what her character would allow, but the slimy depths were only beginning to reveal themselves.
Lo’s arms dropped from their defensive pose and she looked toward the back door as though a helpful volunteer might materialize to drive Gloria to the airport. “I don’t…I can’t. Jesus, I can’t believe I am even having this conversation. Peter!” His name flew from her mouth like a curse, and she stared angrily through the window at the swaying grass. “After last time when that stupid woman from Arizona came with her herbal remedies, he swore he was done with this shit.”
Gloria was pretty sure she was “this shit,” and she shifted the suitcase to her other hand. “Well, looks like there’s not much to be done. Perhaps we can call Peter and let him know I’ve arrived and he might be able to give us an explanation.”
Lo’s laugh was bitter. “He won’t answer when he’s deep in a case. Look, you’re right. Sue-Anne will be here at some stage. Maybe you can stay until you can get a flight back. Who am I to care anyway?”
Gloria wasn’t sure whether Lo’s last remark was sarcasm or not, but she wouldn’t turn down a few days’ grace to get sorted. “Thank you. If I can just speak to Peter, then maybe we can sort out this miscommunication.”
Lo looked skeptical. “Miscommunication, hmm…My husband, Peter, he’s an attorney, one of only two in this town.”
“Who’s the other? Maybe I can stay with him,” Gloria said, a smile lifting one side of her mouth.
Lo looked at her evenly. “Me.”
Gloria wasn’t sure why, most likely overtired delirium, but a laugh bubbled up inside her, and she had to bite back on it. It wasn’t the thought of Lo as a lawyer that made her want to giggle, it was the release of tension the unexpected information had given her. In fact, now that she knew, she could see that Lo did possess the self-assured posture of someone used to commanding authority.
Lo looked at her incredulously before a half smile pushed at the sides of her mouth. She stood up and turned away. “If you don’t mind a bit of dust, there are plenty of cabins to choose from. I’ll show you where to find things. And listen, if there’s one thing Peter knows how to do, it’s communicate directly. The reason he’s not here to welcome you is because he’s intended it that way. He doesn’t want to deal with me. Come on.”
Gloria picked up her suitcase and followed Lo back into the dim corridor. They crossed through a large living room with high ceilings, more wood and cowhide and paintings of landscapes and horses. A framed photo of a woman on a horse being presented with a large rosette was hanging on the wall above a brown leather sofa. Without craning her neck, Gloria recognized the lines of Lo’s long limbs. It was a well-bred horse, she could tell at a glance. She longed to linger over the photo and study his lines, but she didn’t dare. The slightest provocation could buffet Lo’s resolve back the way it had come. Across the expansive living room was a staircase that went up toward the bedrooms.
“Living room, obviously, bedrooms upstairs.” Lo pointed toward the landing above then turned around again and led Gloria past a bathroom and then back out by a washhouse which smelled like washing powder and looked old but well looked after, a basket of pegs sitting on top of the outdated white machine. “That’s all there is to know about the main house. There’ll be no guests, so you can pick whichever guesthouse you like apart from the cottage over by the barn where Kip lives.” Lo opened the door from the washhouse and they went down the wooden steps to where a clothesline was strung from a lemon tree across the lawn. “Just go along and pick one, it won’t matter which.”
Gloria walked hesitantly down the stairs and felt as though she might burst into tears. In all the daydreams she’d had about her new job, in none of them had she imagined she’d be unwelcome. She stood, feeling like an orphan at a train stop, looking out at the swaying grass, trying not to be enveloped by panic. She heard Lo sigh then mutter something behind her. “Gloria, just come inside. You’d better stay in one of the bedrooms for now. Those cabins have been closed up all winter.” It seemed Lo had neither the heart nor the patience to turn her back on the problem that had arrived at her door.
Gloria wasn’t sure what would be worse: being isolated, or being inside with people who didn’t want her. They went back into the house and Lo took her through the living room and up the wide staircase to the landing with its rocking chairs that looked down onto the living room below. “This house was built in stages, so it has an odd layout, but it works if you’re used to it.” There were four closed doors on the landing. Lo stopped at the first door, which was ajar, and nudged it with the heel of her hand then walked in and looked around. Gloria faced her in the doorway, clutching her case with both hands.
“You can stay here until we sort this mess out,” Lo said. “If Peter asked you here, then he can pay what he likes and don’t you feel bad about it. This isn’t a guest ranch any longer, and I keep to myself. Feel free to look around, but leave me and my horses alone.” She scrunched her cardigan closed with a fist again and turned on her heel. As she walked across the landing, she pulled one of the doors firmly shut then disappeared up a steep staircase cut into the wall between the middle two rooms, presumably into the peaked attic room with its single window that Gloria had seen from the road.
Gloria waited but there was no further discernible noise, so she turned and looked at the room. In one corner, a single bed covered in a pale blue quilt with a plump pillow sat against the wall, beside it a little chest of drawers with a brass clock and a lamp with a lopsided shade on top. In one other corner was a chair with a stack of books on top and on one wall hung a mirror, reflecting the world outside. The large window was framed by cream curtains covered in a pattern of blue sprigs of flowers. It was a plain, wholesome room, but the view out onto the mountains was breathtaking. Gloria placed her suitcase on the bed and sat down beside it. She was longing for a shower and a drink of water. Instead, she sat limply staring out of the window at the shifting clouds. When her bodily needs became stronger than her pride, she stood, feeling one hundred years old, and went to find a towel and a bathroom. She thought Lo might appear at the sound of her footsteps, but even as she opened the linen closet and sought out a towel, turned the shuddering faucet on in the pink-tiled bathroom and flushed the toilet, all else was quiet.
By the time she was standing in the bedroom again, her dark hair dripping onto her collarbones, dampening her pale yellow T-shirt and making her aware of the fresh air coming in through the opened window, her stomach felt hollow. Her jeans were loose around her waist, reminding her that it had been almost twenty-four hours since she last ate a proper meal. She wondered about the elusive Peter, with his promises that had set her at ease. Was he stuck at the office, tending to the whole town’s legal needs? She pictured an alternate reality where Lo was in a district court, dressed in a somber suit, imparting droll intellection. Gloria pulled a comb through her hair and regarded herself in the mirror, a stark contrast to the image in her mind. Purple circles had set in below her dark eyes and her straight nose with its upward inflection was stung pink by the recent sun through the bus window. Even her lips were chapped. Her physical state seemed to reflect her mental well-being. She was beyond caring, and it gave her the courage to pull on a sweater and go exploring. It was a brave new world and change was what she desired.
The out-of-control feeling stayed with her outside. It was in the piled haystacks and the rustic wooden fences, the density of the pines beyond the barn and the hare that stopped and stared with bright alarmed eyes before disappearing into the grass. She was disoriented, and rather than feel anxious, it calmed the clawing thing that was always at her to be doing something, fixing things. There was nothing here that wasn’t perfect at this moment. She was a baby, new in this strange world.
There was a dirty white pickup truck parked by the front yard, but no sign of its driver. It was oddly quiet, only the wind whistling over the land. Even the dog had slunk off somewhere. Gloria felt well-warmed by her adventure, poking around in the large barn and the sheds containing a gooseneck horse trailer parked behind some farm machinery. Off the side of the barn was a smaller building accommodating two rows of stables, a tack room, feed room, and a wash bay. Despite the sparseness of the house, the stables were modern and well cared for, with high beams overhead and ventilation under the roofing. All around was the sweet smell of straw and manure and the clean scent of cut chaff. It was a soothing scent that Gloria associated with the contentment of honest labor and the quiet joy born of predictability. She walked along the row of stalls but there was no sound of hooves stamping or tails whisking, no equine heads peeking out with curiosity. She wandered into the tack room and looked around at the saddlery sitting expectantly on wooden pegs, the woolen rugs folded neatly in the corner, the rows of rosettes on the wall. Gloria ran her fingers along the smooth brown leather of a bridle on a hook and noticed one of the saddles, a child’s saddle, sitting on a peg beside its larger counterpart. The quick-release stirrups made for tiny feet. Something about that little object lying dormant on its wooden peg filled her with an emptiness as wide as the flat land beyond.