Christmas Where They Belong
A love worth fighting for…
Julie and Rob McDowell couldn't imagine life without each other. Until a tragic accident tore their family—and their marriage—apart.
For four years they've been living separate empty lives. Yet when news breaks of a bushfire heading straight for the Blue Mountains both are compelled to return and protect their past.
But now they're stranded together for Christmas! And suddenly Rob is determined to prove to Julie that there's something else worth fighting for: their future…
Didn't you once own a house in the Blue Mountains?'
'Crikey, Jules, you wouldn't want to be there now. The whole range looks about to burn.'
It was two days before Christmas. The Australian world of finance shut down between Christmas and New Year, but the deal Julie McDowell was working on was international. The legal issues were urgent.
But the Blue Mountains… Fire.
She dumped her armload of contracts and headed for Chris's desk. At thirty-two, Chris was the same age as Julie, but her colleague's work ethic was as different from hers as it was possible to be. Chris worked from nine to five and not a moment more before he was off home to his wife and kids in the suburbs. Sometimes he even surfed the Web during business hours.
Sure enough, his computer was open at the Web browser now. She came up behind him and saw a fire map. The Blue Mountains. A line of red asterisks.
Her focus went straight to Mount Bundoon, a tiny hamlet right in the centre of the asterisks. The hamlet she'd once lived in.
'Is it on fire?' she gasped. She'd been so busy she hadn't been near a news broadcast for hours. Days?
'Not yet.' Chris zoomed in on a few of the asterisks. 'These are alerts, not evacuation orders. A storm came through last night, with lighting strikes but not much rain. The bush is tinder dry after the drought, and most of these asterisks show spot fires in inaccessible bushland. But strong winds and high temperatures are forecast for tomorrow. They're already closing roads, saying she could be a killer.'
The Blue Mountains.
You wouldn't want to be there now.
She went back to her desk and pulled up the next contract. This was important. She needed to concentrate, but the words blurred before her eyes. All she could see was a house—long, low, every detail architecturally designed, built to withstand the fiercest bush fires.
In her mind she walked through the empty house to a bedroom with two small beds in the shape of racing cars. Teddies sitting against the pillows. Toys. A wall-hanging of a steam train her mother had made.
She hadn't been there for four years. It should have been sold. Why hadn't it?
She fought to keep her mind on her work. This had to be dealt with before Christmas.
Teddies. A wardrobe full of small boys' clothes.
She closed her eyes and she was there again, tucking two little boys into bed, watching Rob read them their bedtime story.
It was history, long past, but she couldn't open her eyes. She couldn't.
'Julie? Are you okay?' Her boss was standing over her, sounding concerned. Bob Marsh was a financial wizard but he looked after his staff, especially those who brought as much business to the firm as Julie.
She forced herself to open her eyes and tried for a smile. It didn't work.
'The fire.' She took a deep breath, knowing what she was facing. Knowing she had no choice.
'I do have a house in the Blue Mountains,' she managed. 'If it's going to burn there are things I need to save.' She gathered her pile of contracts and did what she'd never done in all her years working for Opal, Harbison and Marsh. She handed the pile to Bob. 'You'll need to deal with this,' she told him. 'I'm sorry, but…'
She couldn't finish the sentence. She grabbed her purse and went.
Rob McDowell was watching the fire's progress on his phone. He'd downloaded an app to track it by, and he'd been checking it on and off for hours.
He was in Adelaide, working. His clients had wanted to be in the house by Christmas and he'd bent over backwards to make it happen. Their house was brilliant and there were only a few decorative touches left to be made. Rob was no longer needed, but Sir Cliff and Lady Claudia had requested their architect to stay on until tomorrow.
He should. They were having a housewarming on Christmas Eve, and socialising at the end of a job was important. The Who's Who of Adelaide, maybe even the Who's Who of the entire country would be here. There weren't many people who could beckon the cream of society on Christmas Eve but Sir Cliff and Lady Claudia had that power. As the architect of their stunning home, Rob could expect scores of professional approaches afterwards.
But it wasn't just professional need that was driving him. For the last few years he'd flown overseas to the ski fields for Christmas but somehow this year they'd lost their appeal. Christmas had been a nightmare for years but finally he was beginning to accept that running away didn't help. He might as well stay for the party, he'd decided, but now he checked the phone app again and felt worse. The house he and Julie had built was right in the line of fire.
The house would be safe, he told himself. He'd designed it himself and it had been built with fires like this one in mind.
But no house could withstand the worst of Australia's bush fires. He knew that. To make its occupants safe he'd built a bunker into the hill behind the house, but the house itself could go up in flames.
It was insured. No one was living there. It shouldn't matter.
But the contents.
He should have cleared it out by now, he thought savagely. He shouldn't have left everything there. The tricycles. The two red fire engines he'd chosen himself that last Christmas.
Julie might have taken them.
She hadn't. She would have told him.
Both of them had walked away from their house four years ago. It should have been on the market, but…but.
But he'd paid a housekeeping service to clean it once a month, and to clear the grounds. He was learning to move on, but selling the house, taking this last step, still seemed…too hard.
So what state was it in now? he wondered. Had the bushland encroached again? If there was bushland growing against the house.
It didn't matter. The house was insured, he told himself again. What did it matter if it burned? Wouldn't that just be the final step in moving on with his life?
But two fire engines.
This was ridiculous. He was thinking of forgoing the social event of the season, a career-building triumph, steps to the future, to save two toy fire engines?
'Sarah…' He didn't know what he intended to say until the words were in his mouth, but the moment he said it he knew his decision was right.
'Yeah?' The interior decorator was balancing on a ladder, her arms full of crimson tulle. The enormous drawing room was going to look stunning. 'Could you hand me those ribbons?'
'I can't, Sarah,' he said, in a voice he scarcely recognised. 'I own a house in the Blue Mountains and they're saying the fire threat's getting worse. Could you make my excuses? I need to go…home.'
At the headquarters of the Blue Mountains Fire Service, things looked grim and were about to get worse. Every time a report came in, more asterisks appeared on the map. The fire chief had been staring at it for most of the day, watching spot fires erupt, while the weather forecast grew more and more forbidding.
'We won't be able to contain this,' he eventually said, heavily. 'It's going to break out.'
'Evacuate?' His second-in-command was looking even more worried than he was.
'If we get one worse report from the weather guys, yes. We'll put out a pre-evacuation warning tonight. Anyone not prepared to stay and firefight should leave now.' He looked again at the map and raked his thinning hair. 'Okay, people, let's put the next step of fire warnings into place. Like it or not, we're about to mess with a whole lot of people's Christmases.'
* * *
The house looked just as she'd left it. The garden had grown, of course. A couple of trees had grown up close to the house. Rob wouldn't be pleased. He'd say it was a fire risk. It was a fire risk.
She was sitting in the driveway in her little red coupé, staring at the front door. Searching for the courage to go inside.
It was three years, eleven months, ten days since she'd been here.
Rob had brought her home from hospital. She'd wandered into the empty house; she'd looked around and it was almost as if the walls were taunting her.
You're here and they're not. What sort ofparents are you? What sort of parents were you?
She hadn't even stayed the night. She couldn't. She'd thrown what she most needed into a suitcase and told Rob to take her to a hotel.
'Julie, we can do this.' She still heard Rob's voice; she still saw his face. 'We can face this together.'
'It wasn't you who slept while they died.' She'd thrown that at him, he hadn't answered and she'd known right then that the final link had snapped.
She hadn't been back since.
Go in, she told herself now. Get this over.
She opened the car door and the heat hit her with such force that she gasped.
It was dusk. It shouldn't be this hot, this late.
The tiny hamlet of Mount Bundoon had looked almost deserted as she'd driven through. Low-lying smoke and the lack of wind was giving it a weird, eerie feeling. She'd stopped at the general store and bought milk and bread and butter, and the lady had been surprised to see her.
'We're about to close, love,' she said. 'Most people are packing to get out or have already left. You're not evacuating?'
'The latest warning is watch and wait.'
'They've upgraded it. Unless you plan on defending your home, they're advising you get out, if not now, then at least by nine in the morning. That's when the wind's due to rise, but most residents have chosen to leave straight away.'
Julie had hesitated at that. The road up here had been packed with laden cars, trailers, horse floats, all the accoutrements people treasured. That was why she was here. To take things she treasured.
But now she thought: it wasn't. She sat in the driveway and stared at the house where she'd once lived, and she thought, even though the house was full of the boys' belongings, it wasn't possessions she wanted.
Was it just to be here? One last time?
It wasn't going to burn, she told herself. It'd still be here…for ever. But that was a dumb thought. They'd have to sell eventually.
That'd mean contacting Rob.
Don't go there.
Go in, she told herself. Hunker down. This house is fire-safe. In the morning you can walk away but just for tonight… Just for tonight you can let yourself remember.
Even if it hurt so much it nearly killed her.
Eleven o'clock. The plane had been delayed, because of smoke haze surrounding Sydney. 'There's quite a fire down there, ladies and gentlemen,' the pilot had said as they skirted the Blue Mountains. 'Just be thankful you're up here and not down there.'
But he'd wanted to be down there. By the time he'd landed the fire warnings for Mount Bundoon had been upgraded. Leave if safe to do so. Still, the weather forecast was saying the winds weren't likely to pick up until early morning. Right now there was little wind. The house would be safe.
So he'd hired a car and driven into the mountains, along roads where most of the traffic was going in the other direction. When he'd reached the outskirts of Mount Bundoon he'd hit a road block.
'Your business, sir?' he was asked.
'I live here.' How true was that? He didn't live anywhere, he conceded, but maybe here was still…home. 'I just need to check all my fire prevention measures are in place and operational.'
'You're aware of the warnings?'
'I am, but my house is pretty much fire-safe and I'll be out first thing in the morning.'
'You're not planning on defending?'
'Not my style.'
'Not mine either,' the cop said. 'They're saying the wind'll be up by nine, turning to the north-west, bringing the fire straight down here. The smoke's already making the road hazardous. We're about to close it now, allowing no one else in. I shouldn't let you pass.'
'I'll be safe. I'm on my own and I'll be in and out in no time.'
'Be out by the time the wind changes, if not before,' he said grudgingly.
'I will be.'
'Goodnight, then, sir,' the cop said. 'Stay safe.'
'Same to you, in spades.'
He drove on. The smoke wasn't thick, just a haze like a winter fog. The house was on the other side of town, tucked into a valley overlooking the Bundoon Creek. The ridges would be the most dangerous places, Rob thought, not the valley. He and Julie had thought about bush fire when they'd built. If you were planning to build in the Australian bush, you were stupid if you didn't.
Maybe they'd been stupid anyway. Building so far out of town. Maybe that was why…
No. Don't think why. That was the way of madness.
Nearly home. That was a dumb thing to think, too, but he turned the last bend and thought of all the times he'd come home, with kids, noise, chaos, all the stuff associated with twins. Sometimes he and Julie would manage the trip back together and that was the best. 'Mummy, Daddy—you're both here…'
Cut it out, he told himself fiercely. You were dumb to come. Don't make it any worse by thinking of the past.
But the past was all around him, even if it was shrouded in smoke.
'I'll take their toys and get out of here,' he told himself, and then he pulled into the driveway. and the lights were on.
She'd turned on all the lights to scare the ghosts.
No. If there were any ghosts here she'd welcome them with open arms—it wasn't ghosts she was scared of. It was the dark. It was trying to sleep in this house, and remembering.
She lay on the king-sized bed she and Rob had bought the week before their wedding and she knew sleep was out of the question. She should leave.
But leaving seemed wrong, too. Not when the kids were here.
The kids weren't here. Only memories of them.
This was crazy. She was a legal financier, a good one, specialising in international monetary negotiations. No one messed with her. No one questioned her sanity.
So why was she lying in bed hoping for ghosts?
She lay completely still, listening to the small sounds of the night. The scratching of a possum in the tree outside the window. A night owl calling.
This house had never been quiet. She found herself aching for noise, for voices, for…something.
She got something. She heard a car pull into the driveway. She saw the glimmer of headlights through the window.
The front door opened, and she knew part of her past had just returned. The ghost she was most afraid of.
'Julie?' He'd guessed it must be her before he even opened the door. Firstly the car. It was a single woman's car, expensive, a display of status.
Rob normally drove a Land Rover. Okay, maybe that was a status thing as well, he conceded. He liked the idea that he might spend a lot of time on rural properties but in truth most of his clients were city based. But still, he couldn't drive a car like the one in the driveway. No one here could. No one who commuted from here to the city. No one who taxied kids.
Every light was on in the house. Warning off ghosts?
It had to be Julie.
If she was here the last thing he wanted was to scare her, so the moment he opened the door he called, 'Julie, are you here? It's Rob.'
And she emerged from their bedroom.
The sight of her made him feel. No. He couldn't begin to define how he felt seeing her.
It had been nearly four years. She'd refused to see him since.
'I slept while they died and I can't forgive myself. Ever. I can't even think about what I've lost. If I hadn't slept…'
She'd thrown it at him the day he'd brought her home from hospital. He'd spent weeks sick with self-blame, sick with emptiness, not knowing how to cope with his own grief, much less hers. The thought that she blamed herself hadn't even occurred to him. It should have, but in those crucial seconds after she'd said it he hadn't had a response. He'd stared at her, numb with shock and grief, as she'd limped into the bedroom on her crutches, thrown things into a suitcase and demanded he take her to a hotel.
And that had pretty much been that. One marriage, one family, finished.