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About the author:
When Alissa Callen isn’t writing she plays traffic controller to four children, three dogs, two horses and one renegade cow who really does believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. After a childhood spent chasing sheep on the family farm, Alissa has always been drawn to remote areas and small towns, even when residing overseas. Once a teacher and a counsellor, she remains interested in the life journeys that people take and her books are characteristically heart-warming, emotional and character driven. She currently lives on a small slice of rural Australia in central western New South Wales.
What inspired you to write your book?
I live in the outback and there is no better a place for inspiration. Inspiration surrounds me, whether it be the brown snake at my back door or the resilience of bush communities in times of drought, fires or flood. What Love Sounds Like draws upon my experiences being a mother in rural Australia to four diverse children.
Here is a short sample from the book:
THE ICING on her day-from-hell cake strode into her office like he owned it.
Mia Windsor pushed back her chair and came to her feet. It didn’t matter that the broken air-conditioner rendered the room hotter than a furnace. It didn’t matter that her spilt glass of water had soaked the front of her shirt and turned the client notes she’d been reading into an ink-washed landscape worthy of framing. She was again secure in her comfort zone: she knew how to deal with a man who appeared a carbon-copy of her father.
This client may be a stranger but she knew the exact shade of his power-gold silk tie, the exact angle of his proud chin. The chill of her blouse soaked into her soul. She also knew the meaning of the two body-lengths of distance between him and the wide-eyed child who trailed behind him.
She took a moment to ensure her words emerged clear, concise, perfect, then she stepped out from behind her desk and extended a hand. ‘Welcome to Little Poppies Speech Pathology, Mr. Reid.’
Eyes as blue as an endless outback sky met hers. Masculine lips moved in a barely-there smile before his tanned fingers grasped hers with a surprising gentleness. Too late she felt the weight of the top-knot she’d secured with a pencil shift. Her hair spilled around her shoulders. She closed her fingers around his and squeezed as if her life depended on it. As if her professional hat hadn’t tumbled to the floor along with her makeshift hairpin.
An indefinable expression darkened his eyes before his features again settled in rigid, remote lines. ‘Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, Ms. Windsor.’
The velvet-smoothness of his voice washed over her, doing strange things to her sensible knees. His tone was softer, more human, than she’d expected. Strange, since she’d seen the chiselled features of an ice sculpture exude more warmth. ‘Don’t mention it. But after five minutes in this heat you might be retracting your thanks.’
Without waiting for his reply, she turned her attention toward the blonde-haired girl who’d reached her father’s side and now stood as close as possible to his leg without touching him. Anxious fingers tangled themselves in the folds of her white cotton dress.
Compassion melted Mia’s heart. She knew how many butterflies would spread their wings in Tilly’s stomach, how they’d soar to her throat as soon as she tried to speak. And the sickness that would replace them once no-one understood a single word of what she’d uttered.
She’d once been this child.
Mia placed her hands on her knees and bent so her gaze was level with the little girl’s. ‘Hello, Tilly. I’m Mia.’ She smiled. ‘It’s lovely to meet you.’
Large grey eyes fixed on her. Uncertainty anchored the corners of the child’s tiny mouth into a downward curve. In her peripheral vision Mia saw Mr. Reid adjust his tie, with quick, impatient tugs. Her fingernails bit into her skin. So what if such a gesture was as familiar as the freckles across her nose? Just because her father had performed the same action when she’d attempt to talk to him was of no consequence. She relaxed her death-grip upon her knees. Her childhood lay behind her. Dealt with. Finished. She was Mia Windsor. Speech pathologist. Not Amelia Windsor. Stammerer. Failure.
She straightened. ‘Now before we start, Mr. Reid, I must apologise for the temperature. Yesterday’s power surge knocked out the air-conditioner.’
‘Let’s just keep this short and the heat won’t be a problem.’
‘How about we allow Tilly’s needs to dictate this appointment’s length, shall we?’ Despite her best intentions disapproval cooled her words.
‘Fine. But even out here,’ he glanced out the window to where heat mirages would shimmer instead of glass skyscrapers, ‘time is money.’
‘In a population of under a thousand, money soon loses its shine.’
He arched a dark eyebrow as if such a possibility was as likely as a flying pig adding excitement to her dehydrated, red-dust view.
‘Bush spirit is founded on mateship, not millions,’ she added through tight lips. ‘The only currency of any importance this far west of the mountains is…people.’
‘That’s all very commendable but in my experience money is king. The world can’t work without it.’
She looked at the motionless figure standing lost and alone beside her father. Mia’s annoyance ebbed. Just as well in her world people were the only thing that mattered. Not money. Not power. ‘In this temperature any world would have trouble working. So, let’s get started.’
She crossed to the play area brimming with bright toys, selected a pony from the top shelf and returned to Tilly. ‘It feels hotter than an oven in here, doesn’t it?’ Mia fanned her face with her hand. ‘If I was a cupcake, I think I’d be very overcooked.’
But the child didn’t smile let alone answer. The only movement in her statue-still body was from her eyes as she looked at the toy pony. Mia tilted Stardust so that the overhead light danced in the pony’s iridescent mane.
‘This is Stardust. Her favourite things are rainbows and purple glitter. I was going to make her a pool to cool off in but I’m not very good at putting blocks together. Maybe you could help me?’
Still Tilly didn’t move. Didn’t speak.
Mia lowered her voice. ‘What colour blocks do you think she’d like? Blue or green?’
The small girl looked from the pony to Mia and then back again. But she didn’t answer.
‘Maybe your father could help us decide?’
Tilly’s mouth trembled. Her expression crumbled. With a sob, she buried her face against the masculine trouser leg beside her. Dismay needled Mia’s conscience. What had she said? What had she missed? She had no idea what crucial client details lay drowned beneath her water.
‘It’s all right, sweetheart,’ she soothed, fighting the urge to draw the fragile, shaking body close. ‘I really don’t think Stardust will mind what colour blocks we use.’
‘Ms. Windsor, I thought I’d made everything clear in the intake notes.’ Annoyance set the carved line of Mr. Reid’s jaw in granite. ‘I’m her uncle.’
Guilt kick-started a dull tattoo behind Mia’s eyes. It didn’t matter that the spilt glass of water had obscured the details on Tilly’s file, she’d made a mistake. And not just a wrong file in the wrong colour-coded folder mistake. She’d made a mistake that caused a vulnerable child pain.
‘My apologies for the misunderstanding.’ She concentrated on ensuring that her voice remained smooth, composed. Professional. ‘Before we go any further I’ll reacquaint myself with your niece’s details.’
Tilly’s weeping drowned out Mr. Reid’s clipped reply. Mia took a step toward her. Tilly mightn’t be his child, but surely he could see that she needed comfort. The seconds stretched. Tilly’s sobs echoed around the airless room. Finally Mr. Reid moved. His left hand lowered, hesitated and hovered just above the little girl’s head as though awaiting a puppet master’s instructions.
Mia folded her arms to prevent herself taking hold of his hand and super-gluing it onto Tilly’s head. What was it about proud, powerful men that rendered them incapable of emotion? It must be a pre-requisite that they barter humanity and empathy for privilege and position. A trade her father had made in a heartbeat.
Mr. Reid’s hand lowered further to pat Tilly upon the head with the same enthusiasm as a person pacifying a teething lion cub. His hand then fisted and disappeared into his trouser pocket.
Mia spoke into the tension that was almost as cloying as the heat. ‘Tilly, I’m sorry I made you sad. Stardust is feeling upset today too and needs someone to look after her. Would you mind taking care of her while I check something on my desk? I know she’d be happy with you.’
Tilly gulped in ragged breaths as she turned to centre wet-lashed eyes on the pony. The damp stains that marred her uncle’s perfectly creased charcoal suit would remind him of his niece’s sadness long after her tears had dried. Just when Mia thought Tilly would again hide her face against his leg, the little girl gave a hesitant nod.
‘Thank you.’ She pressed Stardust into Tilly’s tiny, cold hands. ‘I won’t be long.’
‘Now, Mr. Reid, what would you like while I re-acquaint myself with Tilly’s file?’
She blinked. If she didn’t know better she’d swear all colour had leeched from beneath his tan. Ridiculous. One thing her past had taught her was that words like panic and uncertainty didn’t feature in the vocabulary of success-stamped men like her father or Kade Reid. In their power-driven worlds there simply wasn’t any room for such emotions.
‘Are you sure? I can’t offer you another pony but perhaps a toy truck would be more to your taste?’
‘I don’t need anything.’ Deep grooves bracketed his mouth. ‘I’ve never had time for toys.’
‘Little boys love to build things. Push things. Make car noises. You must have had some favourite toy in your childhood, Mr. Reid?’
‘Call me Kade. And, no, I didn’t have a favourite toy.’
‘No obligatory toy train set? No ferocious dinosaurs? No remote-controlled car?’
He shook his head. She glanced to where Tilly’s pale fingers combed themselves through Stardust’s long, silky mane. How could this man not have a beloved toy? Something to love and to cherish.
He spoke again. ‘My father believed time spent on play could be better served learning. At four I had my first share portfolio.’
She searched his impassive features for any sign of humour. She found none.
‘No toys? Only shares?’
‘It did me no harm. Children with idle minds get up to mischief.’
Oh joy. Parenting advice from a man allergic to the entire spectrum of human emotion.
‘So what about adults then? What will keep you out of mischief for the next three minutes?’
A ghost of a grin shaped his mouth. It vanished as quickly as it appeared. His broad shoulders swung toward the room’s coffee-coloured sofa.
‘A seat and a speedy assessment.’
Could it be any hotter?
Kade eased himself back into the leather couch. He ignored the clammy fingers of sweat exploring his skin and ran a hand along his stiff jaw. His muscles felt like they’d just survived boot-camp. It must have been a while since he’d last smiled.
Before him Ms. Windsor sat on the floor with his niece, a pile of blue blocks between them. The speech pathologist speared him a stern look from over the top of her severe glasses. ‘I really do think you’d be more comfortable seated in the waiting room.’
He didn’t back down from a thrown gauntlet. Even when in danger of passing out from heatstroke. ‘Thank you. I’m quite comfortable.’
‘Fair enough.’ Ms. Windsor’s curt reply was accompanied by a frown.
He kept his gaze above her shoulders. His wondering how the water from the empty glass on her desk had ended up over her blouse wasn’t going to make the appointment end any sooner. Just like his noticing how the wet shirt clung to her curves like a second skin wasn’t going to diminish her displeasure.
Another smile threatened. It was as though he’d trodden in something pungent and trekked it all over her beige carpet. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had regarded him with such aversion. But she needed at least another thirty years to carry off a stare which would make his old headmistress proud. And even then Ms. Windsor would still be too pretty. Far too pretty.
All amusement fled. Attractive women were a permanent fixture of his world, a by-product of his status. They were never a novelty or a distraction. So what’d just happened? When Ms. Windsor’s auburn curls had fallen around her face when they’d shaken hands all he could breathe in was the scent of apples. All he could do was stare. Then just when his self-control had righted itself, she’d smiled at Tilly. A smile so gentle, so accepting, he forgot about the room’s high temperature. Forgot about where he was and why he was there.
He folded his arms across his chest. This infernal heat was taking a blowtorch to his composure, melting his sanity and liquefying his focus. He needed this assessment wrapped up. Fast. He needed a verdict and a course of action. He needed his life back. He shifted on the seat. The sofa leather creaked in protest.
‘Feeling restless, Mr. Reid? My secretary could provide you with a glass of iced water? Tilly, you’ll be fine here with me, won’t you?’
He barely registered the instant nod of his niece’s blonde head. A fleeting memory teased his subconscious. Ms. Windsor and her razor-sharp stare reminded him of someone.
‘I couldn’t leave and miss the fun.’
‘Sorry to disappoint you but Tilly and I’ll be the ones having fun.’ She swept a hand over the pile of blocks as if displaying a prize on a game show. ‘Unless you’d like to join us?’
Join them. His fingers tugged at his tie which suddenly choked like a silk noose around his neck. That would mean interacting with Tilly and bracing himself for yet another assault upon his ordered world. ‘As I said before I’m quite comfortable where I am.’
Ms. Windsor’s only response was a slight lift of a fine brow before she again turned her attention to building a rectangular-shaped pool with Tilly.
He shrugged off his jacket and draped it beside him. He refolded his arms against the urge to retrieve his handkerchief and mop his forehead. With luck Ms. Windsor would attribute the sheen covering his skin to the sauna-high temperature and not to bone-numbing dread.
How could such a tiny figure like his ward create such chaos? His life had never been so out of control. With every clutch of Tilly’s hand on his trousers, with every sob that shook her shoulders, the noose around his neck tightened. He was so battle-weary. So tired from fighting to keep his and Tilly’s lives separate. So exhausted from feeling out of his depth.
When Ms. Windsor appeared unfamiliar with Tilly’s details, panic had hit him like a mini tsunami. He’d been assured by the city expert that she was the best person to deal with his niece’s unintelligible speech. She had to know what to do to help Tilly, for he sure didn’t. He knew nothing about children and even less about parenting. Business ventures, yes, but the terrifying world of rainbow ponies called Stardust, no. It was as though Tilly inhabited some foreign country and spoke a language he didn’t understand. A country that was filled with nothing but fairies, furry animals and…feelings.
He closed his eyes and withheld a groan. Why had Brad chosen him as Tilly’s guardian? He didn’t even know his younger brother had married, let alone had fathered a child.
Kade’s eyes opened to the sound of Tilly’s halting speech as she instructed Ms. Windsor on where to place the next block. At last his ward was talking, or trying to. The sooner she could be assessed, the sooner she could learn to speak and he’d be able to employ someone more qualified than himself to raise her.
The sooner the noose would slip from around his neck.