BOOK ONE: the ONE YEAR TO WED series
When happy go lucky Australian Outback heiress, Matilda Waverly, discovers upon the reading of her father's will that not only did her parents not have the fairy tale marriage on which her life has been built, but now she and her
she and her sisters must marry within a year in order to inherit the family cattle station, the time has come to own up to a secret she's been keeping from them all for years!
For Matilda is secretly married! Having eloped with - then left - her dream boy on a wild summer holiday years before. The time has come to track him down, only unbeknownst to her, her dream boy had a secret of his own...
Prince Henri Gaultier Rossetti-Raphael was never meant to be Sovereign Prince of Chaleur, a principality rich in history, yet ravaged by scandal. Meaning he never told the girl he'd loved then lost, that one wild summer of freedom, who he truly was.
Now she's back, ultimatum in hand, forcing him to face his past and his future and the man he wishes to be.
Will it take meeting a handsome prince for Matilda to face reality and let the fairy tale go? Or will she find that dreams can come true after all?
PROLOGUE - Garrison Downs, June
It was the first day of winter. Yet that was not the reason behind the unnatural chill that had settled over the Garrison Downs cattle station. The reading of Holt Waverly’s last will and testament was underway.
Matilda Waverly sat curled up on the velvet couch in the centre of her father’s large office. The bright cushion she hugged tight to her chest, and the fluffy pink jumper she wore over her denim overalls the only bursts of colour amongst all the dark, custom-built wood and masculine brown leather.
She fussed with the ring on her right hand, distracting herself from the strangers milling round the room. Lawyer, accountants, who knew. She wished they’d all sod off, but Rose, Matilda’s oldest sister, must have allowed it. For while this day was painfully personal, Garrison Downs was a community, an industry, an economy unto itself, and what happened in this room and how that news was shaped would affect more than just their family.
Rose sat stiff-backed in the guest chair closest to their father’s desk. Eyes front, light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, dust motes floating about her head as she’d come straight in from checking fences over by Devil’s Bend.
Eve, their middle sister, was there in spirit. Or, to be precise, video conferencing from her the PR office in which she worked in central London. Matilda wished she could see her face, but since that first minute before proceedings, Eve had been on the screen on the wall behind her.
Hugging the cushion tighter as George Harrington, the family lawyer, droned on about investments, stocks, equipment, trust funds, and the robustness of the station’s financial standing, Matilda noted how swamped the older man appeared, sitting behind her father’s iconic desk.
Famously featured in most news stories in which her father appeared, the bold antique desk had fit her father perfectly. Tough, savvy, immensely respected countrywide, Holt had been a mythical character in modern Australian folklore. An icon.
Dad. Gone. Their new reality coming at them in increments. From the accident that had felled him, the outpouring of sentiment from all over the world. The honour – and wait – associated with a state funeral. Only after which had they been able to bury him in the family plot under the shade of a flame tree atop Prospect Hill. Next to their mother, the love of his life.
Matilda blinked to find Harrington had moved onto the gem at the centre of her father’s estate. Garrison Downs. One and a half million hectares of red dirt, hills and vales. Verdant river to the east, ancient craggy outcrops and shadowy canyons to the north. There was the Homestead itself - or the New House as those within the family called it – a colossal home built by her parents when Matilda was a toddler, the Old House her father had grown up in, and the Settler’s Cottage; a place full of ghosts and snakes and other dangers which had made it as tempting as it was terrifying when they were kids.
Add a dozen outbuildings, seasonal staff lodgings, machinery, maintenance, feed barns, ghostly gum trees, kookaburras, kangaroos, and sweeping planes of prime cattle grazing land…and it was just home.
Needing something to hug, Matilda clicked her fingers for River, their old lilac border collie––once a working dog, now happier sticking close to home ––to come keep her company.
When River didn’t instantly appear, Matilda glanced over her shoulder to find the dog sitting in the back corner of the room by a young, dark-haired woman. The woman sat in the chair by the telescope, playing with River’s ear. The chair with the view down the long front driveway. Her mother’s favourite chair.
She seemed a little young to be one of the lawyers, and not so slick. Yet familiar somehow. Matilda’s mouth lifted in a quick smile, her conciliatory nature winning out, even under the circumstances.
The young woman startled, before leaning down and saying something to River that had the old dog padding over to Matilda and jumping up onto the couch beside her, panting happily.
Matilda turned to sink her face into River’s familiar fur, looking up only when the old lawyer cleared his throat.
“Now to the nitty gritty,” said Harrington, his old voice a mite shaky. “To my daughters, I leave all of the above, and all my worldly possessions not listed hereupon, including, but not limited to, the entirety of Garrison Downs.”
There, thought Matilda, breathing out. That’s that then. All as it should be.
Harrington went on, “Let it be known that it is my wish that my eldest daughter, Rose Lavigne Waverly, take full control of the management of Garrison Downs. If that is her wish. If not, I bow to her choice.”
Rose flinched, then briskly retied her ponytail; a classic stress move. The passing of the torch no doubt making it all feel absolutely, terribly, irrevocably real. That she was on her own now.
Not on her own, Matilda upbraided, threading her fingers into River’s soft fur. For she’d be there, sprinkling enthusiasm, keeping spirits up. Not because farming was her bliss, but because she knew how it felt to not be there when it mattered most. Knew the guilt, the soul-deep bruise it left on a person, and never wanted to feel that way ever again.
“Ah,” said the lawyer, glancing over the top of his reading glasses, his gaze settling at some spot over Matilda’s left shoulder for a beat, then back to the papers on the desk. “At this point, could we please clear the room of everyone bar family.”
A collective wish to stay and not miss a juicy detail pulsed off the walls before the room emptied.
“Now,” said Harrington, taking a moment to gift the sisters with a kindly smile. “That was quite the ask, I know. But necessary to cover all the intricacies of your father’s will with those who will best help you manage the ongoing running and reputation of the station. There is just one more thing––“
Harrington stopped. Then rubbed his hand across his forehead.
Rose leant forward; always sensitive to changes in atmosphere. Only Matilda felt it too, enough that she pulled River a little closer.
“There is a condition placed over the bequest. One that has been attached to the property since its transfer to your family years ago.” Harrington took off his glasses, and set them atop the papers. “As I’m sure you know, the history of Garrison Downs is complicated, what with your great great grandmother having won the land from the Garrison family in a poker game in 1904.“
The poker game was legendary in the region. And there was no love lost between the Waverlys and the Garrisons, who still ran another cattle station to the south, though not nearly as big, well-known or prosperous as Garrison Downs.
“Any time the land has been passed down since, certain conditions had to be met.” His hands shook, just a little, as he put on his glasses, and read directly from the will. “Any male Waverly heir, currently living, naturally inherits the estate.”
“Naturally,” Rose murmured.
“But,” said Harrington, lifting a finger, “if the situation arises where there is no direct male heir, any and all female daughters, of marrying age, must be wed, within a year of the reading of the will, in order to inherit as a whole.”
A sound crackled through Matilda’s ears. The past catching up with her? No, Eve was laughing, humourlessly, as if this was somehow no surprise to her.
Some back and forth took place, questions as to what it meant, but Matilda, the history-buff of the family, who in her studies had gleefully read about all kinds of mind-boggling hereditary conditions in the lineages of European royal houses, understood all too well.
“The land,” Matilda said, her words cutting through the heavy air, “is entailed to sons. If there is no son, the Waverly women can inherit, but only if all of us – you, Eve, and I – are married.”
Protests rose from both of her sisters then, while Matilda’s mind stuttered, married, married, married, like an old record stuck on a groove.
“It is…arcane,” Harrington agreed. “But it has been a part of the lore of this land for several generations. So far as I see it, and so far as your father must have wanted, it stands.”
Rose, now up and pacing, shook her head. “How has this never come up before?”
“Sons,” said Matilda. “Dad was an only child. Pop only had brothers, though one died of measles, the other drowned, meaning the farm passed straight to him. Waverlys have always been most excellent at having at least one strapping farm-loving son. Until us.”
Rose looked to Matilda. Made full eye contract for the first time since the reading had begun. It seemed to shake something loose in her. A flash of real fear, before Rose was back to being Rose. Strong, steady, honourable.
“And what happens if we refuse to…marry?” Rose asked.
As far as Matilda knew Rose had never had a boyfriend much less a marriage prospect. As for Eve? Who knew what her love life was like –– so far away, so busy, so hard to pin down. While Matilda –
Matilda stopped fidgeting with the ring her right hand, and, surreptitiously, sat on the thing.
“If the condition is not met,” said Harrington, “the land goes back to the current head of the Garrison family. Clay Garrison.”
Rose lost it then. For she had plenty to say about old Clay, and even more about his son, Lincoln.
“Don’t waste your time worrying about it, Rose, because that’s not going to happen,” Eve said, sounding sure. “Not now. Now ever.”
Though how any of them could feel sure of anything anymore, Matilda had no clue.
Harrington cleared his throat. “As it stands, unless all four of Holt Waverly’s natural daughters are married within twelve months of the reading of this document – “
“Twelve months?” Rose shot back, clearly only just having picked up on that bit. “But I can’t… I’m not… I mean none of us are even seeing anyone right now. Eve? Tilly?”
Matilda shook her head. Slowly. For she wasn’t currently seeing anyone.
“Wait,” said Matilda, stilling a moment, before her socked feet uncurled from beside her to drop to the floor. “You said four daughters. There are only three of us.”
River jumped to the floor, nudging her knee, whimpering. And the pity in the lawyer’s gaze made her sway.
Then, feeling as if someone had taken her by the chin, Matilda turned and looked over her left shoulder to find the dark-haired young woman from earlier, the one who’d been sitting in her mother’s favourite chair was still in the room.
“Who are you?” Matilda asked, not unkindly.
“I’m Ana?” the stranger said, standing, and wringing her hands. Her voice lilting, as if in question.
While Eve, now visible to Matilda on the larger-than-life screen, shifted in her seat. “Who are you talking to, Tilly? I can’t see.”
The chair behind the desk squeaked as Harrington pressed it back and stood. Then he was out from behind the desk, his arm outstretched. “Come forward, girl.”
The stranger came forward. A small, hesitant step.
“Anastasia,” said Harrington, “this is Matilda Waverly. That there is Rose. And up on the screen there is Evelyn. Girls, this is Anastasia Horvath.”
Ana lifted her hand in a small wave and said, “Hi.”
Matilda waved back because…habit. Good breeding. Pathological Pollyanna-syndrome. A deep-seated loathing of all things confrontational. When she glanced back to Rose, it was to find her staring at Ana as if she’d seen a ghost.
“Ana, here,” said Harrington, “is your father’s daughter. Your half-sister. And therefore, according to your father’s will, due an equal share in the estate. And equally beholden to the condition.”
The silence that descended over the room in that moment was suffocating. Because… No. How?
A half-sister meant… Meant their father had had an affair?
The very thought was ridiculous. He’d adored their mother. Famously. Their partnership as legendary as the land they ran.
Then there was the way they had met – a whirlwind, love at first sight, holiday romance between big, gruff, cattle baron Holt and brilliant, elegant, titled socialite Rosamund after which her swept her home, and they’d lived happily ever after. Until Rosamund’s sudden death several years before.
That story was foundational. The keystone to their family.
And he’d had an affair?
“Impossible,” Matilda whispered, only realising she’d said it out loud when Ana flinched.
While her heart shook, rejecting the very thought, Matilda looked harder. Ana appeared younger than her, by a smidge. Her hair was dark and straight, compared to the shades of light brown to blonde shared by Rose, Eve and Matilda. But her eyes – that vibrant piercing blue – they were her father’s eyes.
Matilda’s hand, the one that had waved, dropped to her side, feeling as heavy as lead.
“Rose, Eve and Matilda, you still have the trusts your mother left for you,” said Harrington, dropping to sit on the arm of Matilda’s couch.
Her eyes moved to him, the easier target. He looked tired. As if the past few weeks, leading up to this day, this bombshell, must have been hard on him too.
“They exist outside of the scope of the conditions. So don’t fret on that. But the land itself, the Garrison Downs station and all of its holdings, will belong to the Garrison family unless you Rose, Evelyn, Matilda, and Anastasia, are all married within the next twelve months.”
This was real. Really real. Meaning they had to get on the same page, and fast.
Which was where Matilda usually came into her own. As the youngest it had fallen to her to find some creative way to lighten the mood. But all she could think was that she information that might bring a modicum of relief.
“Hang on. Evie. Did you know? Is this why––?“
“I have to go,” said Eve looking as pale as the white walls surrounding her. Before the TV turned to black.
Rose threw out her arms, and stormed towards the office door. “I can’t–– I don’t have time for this. I have a station to run.” At the door she stopped, turned, pointed at Ana and barked, “Stay!” And then she was gone.
Matilda knew Rose didn’t mean to sound so autocratic, that she was used to having to deal with brash young station hands testing her authority on the daily, but the situation meant everyone was tense.
Including Matilda, who swallowed the words she’d been readying to spill, a secret she herself had been keeping for several years, with a discomfiting level of relief.
From somewhere inside the house they all heard Rose holler, “Lindy! Can you see that the yellow guest suite is made up for Anastasia please. She’ll be staying with us for a bit.”
She would? Matilda thought. Then, Yes, she would. For Anastasia was clearly as crushed by the whole situation as the rest of them. And she was there, on her own.
This was their father’s fault. Every last drop.
He’d left them, not only when Rose, Eve and she were so young, to have an affair with some other woman, but he’d left them again, with this ‘condition’ hanging over them like an anvil about to drop on their heads.
He’d left them with nowhere to put their shock, their anger, their hurt. No one to ask why.
As rage, and fear, and panic rose inside of her, Matilda too would have loved to have flicked a switch and shut it off. Or walked out of that now claustrophobic damn room, and outside, where she might scream at the wide blue winter sky.
But the clock had already started ticking.
One year to wed or lose the land that had been their lifeblood, their safe space, their connector since birth.
Rose, for whom Garrison Downs was the love of her life.
Eve, who was not exactly known for towing the family line.
From the corner of her eye, Matilda glanced at the girl, only to see that she was shaking like a leaf, her bright blue eyes glassy, as Harrington gently tried to talk her out of leaving.
Dad, Matilda thought, a ball of fury clenching in her belly. How could you. Why would you? Did Mum know? Oh, poor Mum. How dare you do that to her. How dare you do this to us.
Then again, she thought, her thumb once again playing with the ring on her right hand, when it came to family secrets, who was she to protest?
Matilda closed her eyes. Trying to find a kernel of anything in her life that could trust anymore.
Rose. Eve. That she could trust. Her sisters.
Matilda turned to face Ana. For she was in this now, too.
Fortifying herself with a big breath, Matilda offered up a smile. Gave her a nod. Letting her know it would all be okay.
Matilda would make sure of it.
And the clock was ticking.