Chapter 1

Rain splattered over the black umbrella Ryan was carrying. It was wet and cold—utterly miserable. It suited how he felt. It suited a funeral.

Folding the umbrella away, fat drops of water fell on his head as he shoved the umbrella in the rented car and got in. Taking off his black camel and cashmere trench coat, which would soon be too warm with the car heater.

Condensation filled the windows as he pulled away from the graveyard, where his father and brother were now interred in the family crypt, along with five previous generations of the Carter family. It was just him now, the family reduced to one. Somehow, it was something he hadn't expected could happen, but it had.

Stroking along the blond stubble on his chin, he started the engine. It felt hard to drive away—it had a finality to it, like he was leaving his family behind.

Pushing the sentimentality aside, he drove away, the streets slick and black with rain and lack of light. The normally stunningly beautiful scenery was grey and misty, but he knew the way like the back of his hand. Granted, it had been a while since he'd driven down these roads.

Growing up, he'd taken the beauty for granted, and he was a little sorry the Mackenzie country wasn't revealing its full splendour that day, but this place was also known for its rain.

The chilly weather had met him as he'd stepped out of Christchurch airport that morning, where'd he'd picked up the hire car his PA had organised and had driven straight to the funeral. There were important meeting that had been set aside for this, and his mind drifted to those, even as he knew it wasn't important. Perhaps because it was easier to think of missed meetings than the reason he was here.

The curves of the road were leading him home, to the place where he'd grown up with his brother and his dad. Even as he'd just come from the cemetery, it was hard to think that they weren't going to be there to meet him. It had actually been six months since he'd been back and he'd only stayed a few days, feeling like he'd had to get back.

Tentatively, he was scheduled to fly back this evening, but those plans could easily change. Right now, he didn't know what he wanted to do.

Cars and utes stood on every available spot. The whole district had turned up, it seemed. It wasn't a surprise. His father and brother were well known and liked, and they came together when one of their own was down.

In a way, Ryan didn't want to see him, even as he knew they all wanted to see him. They wanted to give him their condolences, shake his hand and offer to do anything they needed. They were good, simple people around here.

Finding a place, he squeezed his car in and got out. Behind him drove another car, containing the woman he'd just met for the first time. Dave's brand-new wife. Some girl named Brandi that he'd eloped with during a vacation in Thailand. They'd barely known each other and through, what had to be some drunken impulse, he'd married her.

Pretty enough, Ryan supposed, with her auburn curls and pixie face, but clearly not a girl from around here. She'd worn black shorts and a matching jacket, and lace-up boots. Clearly not a girl from around here, which might have been what had attracted him. Still, Dave and this girl barely knew each other, and they had absolutely not known each other when they'd married, but she was still here apparently.

Dave had moments of doing insane things, like the time he'd driven the tractor into Pasham Lake. Or the time he'd accidentally set light to the shed. Or the time he married some random girl on holiday. Or how about the time he drove to fast and ran off the road with both himself and his dad in the ute, leaving it a mangled mess down a ravine. Or so he'd heard. Pictures had been sent, but Ryan hadn't looked too closely.

Yeah, Dave had the capacity of doing stupid things.

As he watched, this girl, Brandi, got out of the passenger side of the car and quickly looked over his way as she walked in the house. In a way, Ryan felt like she needed permission to just stroll into the house, but supposedly she had moved in with Dave.

Magnus stood in the doorway when Ryan reached the house.

"How are you, son?" Magnus asked. Their elderly neighbour had always called both him and his brother 'son', even if they weren't related. Magnus knew more generations of the Carter family than he did, though.

"Hey, Magnus," he said. "Shit day."

"Yeah," Magnus said. "The worst possible reason to have you back, but it's good to see you. How's life in the big smoke?"

"Good,"

As opposed to his brother, who'd gone to study agriculture at Massey University, Ryan had studied finance at Canterbury and how held a strategic trading job at one of the big banks. Now a member of a small group of professionals at the top of their game, him personally earning ten times more than the family farm did in a single year. The people around Pasham creek didn't understand what he did, and he didn't expect them too. All they knew was that he'd turned his back on farming and had flown the coup.

Stepping into the house, a familiar scent met him. It smelled like a farm homestead and always had, but there was something very comforting about it. A smell he didn't have in his glass and chrome apartment overlooking Darling Harbour in Sydney. This was a world away. Everything in the house was old and used, most of the furniture bought, or made in some cases, by previous generations.

As far as he could see, nothing had changed inside either. His father's battered olive coat still hung on the coat rack, and along the inside hall, were rows of boots and gumboots.

The murmur of people came from the lounge.

"Ryan, it's good to see you," said Pamela, another neighbour, carrying a glass oven tray of sausage rolls. Clearly she was manning the kitchen, a role she always gravitated towards. "Sorry about your loss, love. Quite a shock to all of us. You're looking very strapping, even with your city lifestyle."

"Thanks," he said absently. "Good to see you too, Pamela."

"Everyone's in here. Come say hello," she said, leading him into the lounge, where people stood around, some dressed nicely, others as nicely as they were ever going to dress.

A sea of familiar faces greeted him, person after person approaching, clapping him on the shoulder or shaking his hand, telling him how shocked and sorry there were.

Over in the corner stood Brandi, chatting with Vicky Feld, who Ryan had gone to high school with. Ryan couldn't think of two different people. Blond, sensible and pretty Vicky. Every guy had had a secret crush on her in high school. Brian Sand had won her, though, the school's star rugby player who had gone on to play professionally for a while.

Looking around, he saw Brian standing not far away, standing in a black leather jacket, looking relaxed as he held his beer. Jeez, all the hold faces were here.

"I'm so sorry for your loss," said the guy stepping into Ryan's field of vision.

"Hey, Leslie," Ryan said to the vet he'd been introduced to last Christmas. From what Ryan remembered, the guy had taken over old Patterson's practice when he'd died of a heart attack. Seemed pleasant enough, and dad hadn't griped about him, so he had to be decent enough as a vet too. "Thanks for coming."

With a departing smile, Leslie fleeted away.

"Have you eaten?" Pamela asked, appearing with her tray of sausage rolls.

"I ate on the plane."

"Well, have one anyway. Hunger will sneak up on you at a time like this, and the last thing you need is to neglect yourself at a time like this."

With a smile, Ryan took a crumbly roll of pastry covered sausage meat. He wasn't exactly the guy to completely lose himself in emotion, but it wasn't worth arguing with Pamela either. "Lovely," he said when he took a bite. It appeared her enough and she went to goad her next victim.

Lachlan came over with a beer for him, handing it over. "Here," he said. "Reckon you need this. Sorry, mate. Unbelievable what's happened."

"Yeah," Ryan said, accepting the beer. Taking a glug from the bottle's neck, the familiar taste of him hit him. He'd grown up with this taste, him and Dave sneaking a couple of bottles from their dad from quite a young age. The memory of that assaulted him.

Fuck, he didn't want to be here right now, but he had to. This all felt like taking a step into the past, into his very memories, except dad and Dave weren't here. This signified a real and irreversible change. The life he'd walked away from wasn't one he could now return to. While the house was still here, and the community they lived in, the core part, his family, wasn't.

"Hey, Ryan, good to see you," Richard Woolston said, clapping him on the back. Their family lawyer the only guy who wore a suit. "We've got to do the administrative stuff around the will at some point. Probably best to do it at my office in town."

"Yeah sure."

"Might be best to wait until morning, eh?"

Ryan hadn't intended to stay the night, but perhaps that was fore the best. He hadn't been thinking clearly when he'd told Kylie to book him some flights, having assumed that he'd hate every minute of this and would seek to leave at the first available opportunity. A big short-sighted in reality. Of course, he had to stay a couple of days. There were probably thing he needed to do that only he could. "Yeah, sure," he repeated.