Matilda Next Door - Kelly Hunter

Chapter One

Matilda Moore of Moore Creek Station had two loving, smothering parents, no siblings, and a clothing wardrobe heavily stacked towards denim and plaid. Early dreams of becoming a ballerina had come to naught. For one, there had been no ballet teacher in her particular stretch of rural Australia. Secondly, she’d never for one minute been graceful, willowy or ethereal. Sturdy was more the word that came to mind when people thought of Tilly. Able to drench a mob of sheep and sing along to the radio while she did it—out of tune and unconcerned because who was going to hear her anyway? Capable of mending fences all day long with her father, and then backing up later that evening to help her mother cook up a dozen sponge cakes for the local school fete. Earnest, reliable, Tilly. These days with her ballerina dreams all neatly packed away in the face of sturdy reality.

Not that she was complaining. Reality had been quite good to her on the whole. She ran her own catering business—specialising in cakes, slices and biscuits—and turned a healthy profit. A couple of years back she’d convinced her parents to let her turn the western wing of the grand old family homestead she’d grown up in into a two-bedroom apartment for her own private use. Two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchenette, two living areas. Even fancy French doors leading out onto the verandah, and a front door besides. Her very own point of entry into her private domain. Independence was hers. Privacy, all hers!

Except for the part where she still lived under the same roof as her parents and if she ever brought a visitor home … they might not say much, but they would know. And she would know they knew and that would be awkward. Yup.

Twenty-six-years-old with one semi-serious failed relationship behind her and a family farming legacy of red dirt, sunsets and a couple of thousand hectares of sheep grazing country to care for.

Give it another few years, and even her sturdy youthful glow would begin to wither beneath the relentless Australian sun, if it wasn’t already. People would be starting to say Oh, that Tilly. She should have done more when she was younger. Travelled for a while or become a chef—because those sponges, man, have you tasted them? She baked apple pies for the school fete last year and grown men wept because the sponges were no more. They had to create an impromptu lemon-and-passion fruit sponge order form for all the weeping men, so that Tilly, bless her heart, could bake thirty of them on the Sunday, ready for pick up from school on Monday morning. Mind you, the apple pies were good too. She should do more of those next year. Not as if she has anything better to do. She could hear them now.

Oh, wait. She’d already heard that crack about not having anything better to do.

Bethany Church, one of her elderly neighbours who lived on the property next door had said those very words to her two days ago. Didn’t seem to matter that Tilly had collected the mail from town and hand delivered it to Bethany’s door. Didn’t matter at all that Tilly had made a week’s worth of soup and a big mince pie and had handed those over too. Wasn’t as if she had anything better to do.

Tilly shook her head. Best not to let mean minded Bethany Church get to her. Bethany, grandmother to Henry who’d left Wirralong years ago for a university scholarship in England because, yes, he really was that smart. Henry, who’d been raised by his elderly grandparents who were getting frailer every year, and yet somehow he’d still managed to escape Wirralong in order to build a life of his own.

Henry, who was coming home from London for a month to visit his grandparents, while Tilly took her first overseas trip, and apartment-sat Henry’s London bachelor pad for him while he was away. They had it all worked out and she could not wait. She’d recently added a polka-dot shirt to her wardrobe full of plaid. And a white jacket. White, no matter how impractical! With a tiny little white flower pattern on the lining. Flowers for her wardrobe. White-on-white flowers, and barely visible, but she knew they were there.

She’d tried the clothes on, made sure they fit, and wrapped them straight back up in plastic, ready for her suitcase. She’d wash and wear when she got to London. The washing water wouldn’t