A multi-generational contemporary romantic saga set in a cattle ranch in Central Queensland, Australia.
A man loses five years of his life. Two women are desperate for him to remember.
Running away for the second time in her life, twenty-seven-year-old Ava believes the cook’s job at a country B&B is perfect until she meets the owner’s son, John Tate.
The young fifth-generation grazier is a beguiling blend of both man, boy and a terrible flirt. With their connection immediate and intense, they begin a clandestine affair right under the noses of John’s formidable parents.
Thirty years later, Ava returns to Candlebark Creek with her daughter, Nina, who is determined to meet her mother’s lost love for herself. While struggling to find her own place in the world, Nina discovers an urban myth about a love-struck man, a forgotten engagement ring, and a dinner reservation back in the eighties. Now she must decide if revealing the truth will hurt more than it heals…
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Candlebark Creek, 1985–6
The massive slab of varnished wood was the biggest tabletop twenty-seven-year-old Ava had ever seen. Still, she almost doubted it could hide the nervous jig in her legs that both hands pressing firmly on failed to stop. She hoped the folder’s contents would be enough to convince the lady of the house that she was perfect for the position.
‘I did say on the telephone that the role is a varied one and not all cookery and not only when we have guests staying. No one on a property like Ivy-May can afford to be picky or precious about their jobs.’ It was fifteen minutes into the interview, and the woman’s expression had yet to shift into anything close to a smile. ‘Your time off is your own, but we all do our share.’
Marjorie Tate paused before slowly rolling up her sleeves as if driving home the point. The action offered Ava a glimpse of hardworking hands: stubby and tanned with a simple gold wedding band and bitten-down nails. Somewhere around forty or forty-five, the B-and-B operator wasn’t old, just plain, as though all her effort went into something other than herself.
‘I do consider myself versatile, Mrs Tate, and I’m always keen to learn new things. I’d also have little need for days off in a town like Candlebark Creek. There aren’t many places to go or things to do.’
For that careless statement, Ava got a raised eyebrow and a minute of the clock ticking above the stove.
‘You seem young to have had so many jobs, although you have provided an impressive CV and an extensive portfolio of dishes.’
‘Thirteen years in the workforce.’ Ava sat straight and proud. ‘The last eleven in hospitality.’ She could see the woman mentally subtracting eleven from twenty-seven. ‘And I was never fired from a job,’ she added, sounding a little too enthusiastic. ‘Some were set contracts, some seasonal. Hospitality can be like that.’
‘Ivy-May B-and-B might be small and out of the way, but I’m aware of the industry’s many facets.’ Marjorie Tate flicked through the plastic sleeves of the folder. She stopped again on the résumé at the front. ‘You have no school certificate listed.’
‘I left school when I turned fifteen.’
‘Before exams?’ Another raised eyebrow, another flick through the folder’s many photographs.
Never before had Ava’s lack of formal qualifications been an issue. Hands-on experience was what landed you a kitchen job, and every role, from waiting tables to making desserts, had added to Ava’s expertise and skills. As confident as she was about her abilities, she still sat with her hands clasped between her knees, fingers crossed.
‘Our son finished high school a couple of years ago and did well. John’s a bit of a dreamer, although there’s no doubting his passion for the land.’ The grazier’s wife with the moon-shaped face – taut, shiny skin, rosy cheeks – reminded Ava of a wooden babushka doll, with its rotund face and multiple hidden layers. The unexpected softness in her voice when she’d spoken her son’s name revealed one. ‘Naturally, he was keen to finish studying early to work with his father. John’s very capable and quite mature for his age. Children in these parts tend to grow up quickly,’ she added. ‘No choice out here. Operating heavy machinery and working bulls requires a sensible head on robust shoulders. But as much as the property had needed more hands at the time, I insisted John stay on at school.’ She peered over the top of thick black spectacle frames. ‘The value of a proper education should not be underestimated. Dreams are more achievable with a thorough education, and it shows discipline. Smart employers insist on such qualities.’
Ava nodded, forcing a smile. Was the woman telling her she was no longer a suitable candidate? Should she try speaking to her feminine side and explain what had happened to drive her from the city to hide in an out-of-the-way country town? Marjorie Tate was more likely to find fault because Ava had allowed herself to be put in such a position in the first place. Unfortunately, Zac had not come with a warning plastered on his forehead. At least he couldn’t find her here and affect her employment chances.
It’s rare for a story to make me cry, but this tale of lost chances and the abiding love of a mother and daughter did. An epic tale, set in Queensland, Austrailia, Ava and Nina’s story spans over thirty years. You can’t recapture the past, but Ava finds it is not the case but is she prepared to risk her heart again?
Vividly described, you get a sense of the wildness and beauty of the dramatic setting, but mostly the land is unforgiving and demands everything from those who work it. I’ve never visited Australia and probably never will, but this story lets me travel there in my imagination.
It takes a while to get into this story, but each twist and heartbreak and risk Ava takes, draws you into her world past and present until you are emotionally involved and want her to have a happy ending, even when it seems unlikely.
The characters are believable, and their life events realistic, not everything falls into place as Ava’s past collides with her present, but there is hope. She is successful in her career and more importantly her family life, even though she has never forgotten the man she loved and left.
I read the ‘Thorn Birds’ about forty years ago when I was a teenager and still remember it now, and similarly, I think the emotion and poignancy of this story will stay with me too. If you get the chance, read this.
I received a copy of this book from Head of Zeus via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
After leaving the corporate working world, Jenn J. McLeod decided to travel Australia in a fifth-wheeler caravan and fulfil her lifelong ambition to write. She has since published four novels.