"Claire!!!" Tess screamed in her sleep. Nick woke up beside her startled. Tess sat up in a cold sweat, tears began to run down her cheeks.
"Claire…" she said in a soft whisper. Nick sat up and pulled her to his chest and held her tightly kissing her on top of the head.
"Shh Tess. It's okay. I'm here."
"I want her here. I want my sister back." Tess sobbed in his arms.
"I know you. Shhh."

It had been months since Claire had passed away and the dreams were still haunting Tess. It was so hard to let Claire go. Although she had said her goodbyes at the funeral Tess couldn't shake her dreams. In her dreams she and Claire would talk, work, and laugh. God she missed her sister's laugh. It was hard to let her go, and Tess knew that from the very beginning, but she wasn't prepared for the emptiness she felt without Claire. After so many years apart, and so little time together Tess felt like she was jipped. They were just getting closer, and they had reached a point that Tess had always hoped for. It was the wish she had every year since they day she left Drovers when she was young. All she could ever remember wanting was to be with Claire. Her big sister Claire! Their relationship wasn't an easy one, and it took time for it to get to where they were, and now that Claire was gone, it left her empty.

"I might go and check on Bom." Tess said breaking out of his embrace. Tess tip toed into Claire's old room, which she turned into Charlotte's room. Tess watched Charlotte as she slept. Tess couldn't help but pick her up and hold her close.
"I miss you Claire. I miss you so much."

Tess kept herself busy bringing up Bom, and keeping Drover's alive. She worked as hard if not harder than Claire. It was hard to believe that only a few years ago she had been a city girl who wanted nothing to do with farming. Claire was right, she had come a long way. Tess was just unsure if she could get any further without her sister. Bom was everything to Tess, and Drovers was close behind. Having Nick in her life surely made things easier and as each day passed she loved him even more. Grateful for the lessons she learned, without Claire, she wouldn't have taken the chance and be with the man she loved most.

As time passed Tess' dreams subsided, and she was able to move on. Though Birthdays, Christmas', the anniversary of Claire's death, and special occasions were the hardest, but throughout the years they learned to cope.

"Auntie Tess postcard from Alex." Charlotte said running into the kitchen where her Aunt was fixing breakfast.
It had been over five years since Claire's death. Though Tess had been inconsolable, it was Alex who took it the worst. Like Tess he was plagued with "What If's", he felt guilty that it had taken them so long to get together. He felt guilty that it wasn't him driving that day of the accident. He felt guilty that he never got the chance to propose to her, knowing how much she would have loved it. After Claire's death Alex chased a rodeo after a rodeo throughout the country, but keeping his firm promise be there for Charlotte. Like Tess, Alex found a last connection in Charlotte to Claire. But for him it was on going struggle, he loved Charlotte more than anything in the world, as his love for her mother magnified that. However Charlotte was a constant reminder of the woman he loved, the woman he had lost. The more Charlotte grew up, the more she looked and acted like Claire. It haunted him, as well as comforted him. Throughout the years he had made his presence known, visiting in between rodeos, if it meant flying in and out. Charlotte always came first, he spoke to her every day, sent her presents and notes. Charlotte loved him completely.

Nick ran Wilgul from Drovers. He had long since asked Terry to run Wilgul with him, and trusted him completely enabling him to spend more time in the homestead. He had been wanting to marry Tess, but felt her resistance. He knew it wasn't because she didn't love him, but more her avoidance of Claire's absence. He knew in time they would get there.

"Come here Pumpkin, we'll read his postcard together." Tess said as Charlotte climbed onto her lap.
"It says, Hi Sweetheart. The rodeo is almost finished and I'll be home soon. I miss you heaps and heaps and love you very much. Alex"
"He's coming home." Charlotte said excitedly. Tess nodded smiling, hoping he was staying this time.

Every day since the postcard came Charlotte was on Alex watch, she watched from the front door, and finally one morning he had arrived.
"AUNTIE TESS ALEX IS HERE. ALEX IS HERE." She said jumping up and down excitedly. She burst out of the front door and ran to his car. Alex's face lit up at the sight of her, how she had grown. How beautiful she was, how she looked so much like her mother. He opened his arms wide and she flew into them. He picked her up and hugged her tightly and spun her around happily. Charlotte lay her head on his shoulder enjoying his presence as he hugged her tightly for a long time.
"I've missed you Squirt." Charlotte giggled. Her Uncle Nick called her Squirt too.
"I missed you!"

"Good to see you again Alex." Tess said as she came out of the house. She meant it. She hardly saw him in the last few years, and they were both conscious of it. They were a constant painful reminder to each other of what they had lost. She and Alex were the closest people to Claire, and Tess knew no one loved her sister as much as she and Alex did, it was that common bond alone that made it so hard to be around each other. Tess felt bad that she couldn't be there more for Alex as Claire would have wanted her to be, but they learned to grieve in their own way. Deep down they drew strength from each other, whether they knew it or not. They both knew they shared an unbreakable bond, and in the end, they were there for one another.
"Good to see you too Tess. Do you mind if I stay here?" he asked, and Tess shook her head, knowing all he wanted was to be near Charlotte. He craved Claire as much if not more than she did. It was still written all over his face.
"Stay for as long as you'd like."
"Yes!" Charlotte said excitedly. She loved being with Alex, he was a lot of fun, and he often told her stories about her Mum. But just like her Auntie Tess, he always got sad when he told her stories. Alex pulled her closer and hugged her again. Tess placed a hand over his and gave him an understanding look. After so many years it was still difficult.

Alex put Charlotte down for a nap and watched her sleep. Tess had called Nick to let him know that Alex had arrived and to come back to Drovers to see him. He found Alex on the rocking chair in Charlotte's room staring at her. Nick placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. Alex jumped startled,
"Hey Al," Alex got up and Nick pulled him in an embrace.
"Glad you're here. You staying?" he asked.
"For awhile, is that okay?"
"Of course it is. Bom would be thrilled. She's been camped out in front of the windowsill since you sent that postcard to say you were coming home." Nick knew there was no point in asking how long awhile was. Alex feared stopping long enough to feel the hurt he believed he had numbed.
"Actually Al, there's something I wanted to talk to you about."
"Let's go for a walk, I don't want to wake her." Alex said leading him out of Charlotte's room.

"I don't know how you're going to feel about this, and the last thing I want to do is make you feel uncomfortable."
"Spit it out Nick."
"I want to ask Tess to marry me." Nick said quickly. Unsure of Alex's reaction. Nick feared it would bring back what he never was able to do. Alex felt his heart tightened as his mind flash back to his putting her ring on their bed. After a moment he looked up at Nick,
"It's about time little brother."
"I know it's a lot to ask Al, but will you stay for it? I want you to be my best man." Alex's eyes filled with tears,
"Can I think about it Nick? I don't want to give you an answer and let you down." Nick nodded, he understood the demons that haunted Alex, and he wished there was something he could do about it.

Nick was due to go on a business trip for a couple of days and was happy that Alex would be around so that Tess and Charlotte weren't alone. It was also the opportunity he took to propose to Tess. But he had long since decided he wasn't going to do it in person, not wanting to pressure her, so he had written it down. He left the letter and ring on the study table. Knowing she would find it that night.

Tess let Alex out Charlotte to bed,
"Goodnight honey. Sleep tight." She said giving her a hug goodnight before heading into the study to work on the books. Her eyes fell upon Nick's letter and engagement ring. Her heart stopped.

"Tess, I would have loved to have done this in person, but I know you would want to think about it before you make your decision. I didn't want you to feel pressured to say yes or no. I know you love me, as you know I love you. Marriage is a sanctity, and I would love to be married to you, but if you're not ready, that's okay too. I just want you to know where I am right now, and that's wanting nothing more than to be your husband and be the father of our children. Think about it Tess. I love you, and your answer would never change that. Always, Nick."

Tess picked up the ring and held it close to her heart. Tears began to stream down her eyes.
"Claire…" She knew the reason she didn't want to get married was because she didn't want to walk down the aisle without Claire there. It was the most important moment of her life and she didn't want it to happen if Claire wasn't at her side. She lay her head on the table and sobbed. Alex heard her as he reached the bottom of the step, he knocked gently on the door before entering. Tess looked up with her tear-stricken face.
"I hate that she isn't here. I'm starting to hate her for not being here Alex. She's missed out on so many important moments already. Bom's first words, first steps, now this." She said holding up the ring in her hands.
"I don't want to get married without her Alex. Alex I feel so lost without her." Alex took her in his arms and held her tightly.
"No one understands what you're feeling better than I do Tess. But if she was here right now, and she could see what we have both become, we would be in a whole lot of trouble."
"Alex, it's harder and harder to remember everything. It's fading and I don't want it to. I want Charlotte to know her mother, but how can I teach her if I can't remember her. Alex we only had a couple of years together, how am I qualified to tell her daughter all about her. I hardly knew her." Tess broke free from his embrace and ran out of the house without having any idea on where to go. She saddled up Oscar and went for a ride. The moon was out and stars shone bright giving her plenty of light. Tess found herself at the tree they had spent many moments at. She remembered the day she broke it off with Dave and Claire had found her and held her for hours as she cried. She wanted nothing more than to feel her sister's arms around her again. Tess sat by the tree and buried her head on her knees as she cried endlessly.
"Claire…" she said in a soft whimper,
"Tess." Tess stopped and looked up as Claire stood before her.
"You have to stop being afraid Tess. You have to move on with your life. It's time. Stop holding on to me."
"I don't want to."
"But you have to Tess. You're putting roadblocks for yourself unnecessarily. Nick loves you and you love him. It's time you get married and start your own family. It's been five years. You've done a great job on Charlotte, I couldn't have brought her up any better. That's why she's with you Tess. I have every confidence in you, but you have to let me go fully. Otherwise you can never move forward."
"I don't want to Claire." Claire kneeled in front of Tess. Tess looked at her directly in the eye.
"I'm scared that if I move on, I'll forget, and I don't want to forget. I want Charlotte to know who you are."
"She does, but you don't need every memory for that Tess. All Charlotte has to do is take a good look at you and she'll remember me. Tess look at how far you have come. The strength that you have acquired, the integrity you hold. I couldn't ask for a better mother for Charlotte. Charlotte will know me through your love for me. It doesn't matter how little time we had together, all that is important is that we had what we had and that will live on forever. Don't underestimate what we had. Don't regret the time we didn't get. Tess, I may no longer be around, but I have never left your side." Claire pulled her in her arms and Tess held on to her tightly.
Alex found Tess curled up beside the tree asleep. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and Tess sat up startled.
"Claire…" she said disoriented.
"It's only me sorry."
"Charlotte…"
"She's fine Tess. I got Jodi to come and watch her for awhile."
"I miss her too Tess. I miss her so much it hurts. All I've wanted to do was keep moving because that meant being too busy to process anything. I've been running for five years and it doesn't hurt any less."
"It's time we move forward Alex. It's time. She would be hating seeing you like this. She loved you more than anyone, aside from Bom of course. She would hate you live your life in misery. You wouldn't be honouring her memory any more than I have been these last few years. I don't think either of us should under estimate what we had with her. Sure it was shorter than what we would have liked, but the what if's is going to destroy us, and we have way too much to live life to the fullest for. That little girl is a living testimony of that. What I've realised is that I can't be all that I can be for Charlotte if I continue on this way, because I would be losing myself little by little because I'm scared. That's not the McLeod way." Alex gave her a small smile.
"Does that mean you're going to say yes?" he asked. Tess nodded,
"Does that mean you're going to stay?" she asked in return. Alex looked away,
"I'm glad you're okay to move on Tess, but I'm not ready." Tess nodded. She couldn't ask him to let go when he wasn't ready to. They rode back to the homestead in silence.
Alex snuck back into Charlotte's room and watched her sleep.
"It's about time you snap out of this Ryan!" Alex sat up and looked around and saw her by the windowsill. "Claire."
"Don't Claire me like there's nothing wrong. Don't you think you should be at your brother's wedding. Especially if I can't be there for my sisters." Claire moved towards him and sat by his knees on the floor and looked up at him.
"I love you Alex Ryan, I always have and I always will. I can't say I wouldn't have done anything differently if the shoe was on the other foot and I had to live through losing you, all I know is this road to self destruction that you have been on the last five years isn't something I want Charlotte to witness. She adores you Alex, and I don't want her seeing you this way. You're more than this. She loves that Alex that I loved from the first moment we met, and I want to keep it that. I want her to see you live your life to the fullest, because that's what I want her to do. Please Alex. Let me go."
"I don't want to let you go."
"Why?" she asked tearfully.
"Because I love you."
"Just because you move forward doesn't mean you're not going to love me anymore does it?"
"No, but…"
"But nothing Ryan! You have your whole life ahead of you and it kills me to watch you like this every day. I want you to be happy and holding on to me isn't going to leave you open for that happiness. I'm not saying forget me, you better not. I'm just saying, let me go Alex. You need to. Please, let me go." Claire climbed on to his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck. Alex held her close and tight.
"ALEX…." Charlotte screamed sitting up. Alex jumped from the rocking chair and rushed over to her bed. Tess came bursting into the room panicked.
"Alex…" Charlotte began to cry. Alex scooped her up into his arms and sat her down in his lap.
"Stay. Don't go anymore. Stay here. Please!!!" she begged,
"Shh, darling it's okay."
"No Alex, stay. You have to stay. Please, don't leave anymore." Alex glanced up at Tess and at the windowsill where Claire was standing in his dreams. He looked back down at Charlotte and wiped her tears.
"I'm not going anywhere Bom. I'm staying, for good." Tess smiled at him encouragingly. Alex tucked Charlotte back into her bed and stroked her hair till she fell asleep.
Tess and Alex walked back down to the kitchen, Tess took out the pint of Ice Cream from the freezer and handed him a spoon. Alex's eyes met hers and they both smiled. For the first time they were able to remember Claire without the sinking heart.

"Charlie, can we go out for a ride?" Tess asked Charlotte the following day after breakfast. Charlotte grinned and nodded. She loved riding with her Aunty Tess. Charlotte followed Tess into the barn and made a bee line to Eagle. Tess smiled.
"Not yet Charlie. Soon! When you're a little bigger." Charlotte loved Eagle. She loved her horse Cinnamon, but she had always been fascinated by Eagle. Even before she knew it was her mother's horse.
"I know Auntie Tess." Charlotte said looking at Eagle longingly.
"Tell you what Bom, when you get back from your ride with Auntie Tess I'll take you out on Eagle." Alex said coming into the barn.
"Can I Auntie Tess?" Charlotte asked eagerly. Tess gave a consenting nod and smiled at Alex. He was getting there. Tess and Charlotte rode in silence. Tess had taken her to the top of their property, overlooking their land. Just as Claire had when she first arrived to Drovers.
"Charlie, I wanted to talk to you about something. I wanted your opinion." Charlotte felt incredibly important and looked at her Aunt with complete concentration.
"Your Uncle Nick and I love each other very much, and he asked me to marry him, and we want to get married. Do you know what that means?"
"That you're going to have babies?" Charlotte said in all seriousness. Tess laughed,
"Eventually, but it means we're going to have a wedding. Uncle Nick will move in all his things," Tess said rambling,
"But Aunty Tess, Uncle Nick already lives with us."
"You're right Darling. A wedding is just a ceremony, kind of like a party to celebrate. One day I'll explain the concept better. I wanted to talk to you about it because I wanted to know what you thought. I also wanted you to know that nothing will change. Your Uncle Nick and I love you very much Charlotte, and no matter happens, we always will." Charlotte looked at her thoughtfully before speaking,
"Even if you have babies?"
"Yes Darling. You're special to all of us, and you will always be. So what do you say?" Charlotte thought for a moment and grinned,
"You can marry Uncle Nick Auntie Tess." Tess grinned at her niece,
"Thank you Darling."

When Nick arrived back from his business trip he wasn't quite sure what to expect. When he had spoken to Tess on the phone she hadn't mentioned the ring at all. It worried him a little. Charlotte heard his ute pull up in the driveway and excitedly ran out of the house
"UNCLE NICK'S HOME!!!" Nick laughed as Charlotte burst out of the door, her ponytails bouncing as she ran towards him. He picked her up and hugged her.
"Hey Squirt. Miss me did you? Oh my, did you get bigger in the two days I was gone? Pretty soon you'll be riding Eagle kiddo."
"Really?" She asked excitedly.
"Don't encourage please." Tess muttered under her breath as she walked out of the house to greet him.
"Hey Hon." Nick greeted leaning over to kiss Tess.
"Ewww." Charlotte said grimacing as Nick and Tess laughed.
"Charlie wasn't there something you had to tell Uncle Nick." Charlotte thought for a moment and remembered.
"Oh, Uncle Nick, you can marry Aunty Tess. We both say yes." Nick's eyes lit up as he looked from one to the other.
"Really?" Both Tess and Charlotte nodded. He hugged them both and grinned.
"I think this warrants a celebration."
"There's more." Tess said interrupting,
"Alex is staying!!!!" Charlotte stated proudly. Nick glanced at Tess who smiled in confirmation.

With both having such a busy schedule, the hardest part was picking a date. When they had tackled that obstacle, with the help of Meg and Jodi everything fell into place. They were to be married in Drovers. Alex had taken over from Nick in running Wilgul, but he remained living in the homestead. He rose early and did his chores and rode back in time to have breakfast with Charlotte and go through her lessons with her. Alex, Nick and Tess took turns in going through Charlotte's lessons with her. Charlotte went to school a couple of days a week, the rest of the time she was home schooled.

The night before the wedding Nick and Alex spent the night at Wilgul. Tess, Jodi, Meg and Charlotte sat around the living room talking. Charlotte fell asleep on Jodi's lap.
"I wish she was here." Tess murmured looking at Charlotte beside her. Meg looked up from the other couch. "I know Tess, she is in a way." Meg said glancing down at Charlotte trying to comfort her.
"Meg, I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have Charlotte."
"I miss her." Jodi said tearfully. Though she and Claire hardly saw eye to eye, she loved her. She was the older sister she didn't have.
"I do too. Remember that time we sold the skinny sheep and we went to Gungellan to celebrate and you got her up on that stage singing her little heart out on the karaoke?" Meg reminisced fondly,
"Yes! That was so much fun. She was finally loosening up a little by then." Tess recalled.
"I remember the day I was to marry Alberto and we were talking about Dad, and it felt like we were really talking. She said that Dad hadn't really been there for me, that as important as it was that he was my Dad, it wasn't enough if he hadn't been there. That's my favourite memory of Claire."
"I miss her 'You're Crazy Tess' looks. I miss her laughs. I even miss her bossing me around. I just miss her." Tess said sadly wiping away a tear.
"She loved you Tess. From the moment you were born, till the day she died, till now I'm sure, wherever she is." Meg said softly, feeling the need to say it.
Before Tess could reply there was a soft knock on the door. She got up to get it and almost screamed when she opened the door.
"Becky!!!" Tess said throwing her arms around her and hugging her. They hadn't heard from Becky since she had left Drovers. Despite the promises of keeping in touch, she didn't. When they tried to find her, they couldn't.
"Heard you were getting married and thought I'd drop by and say congratulations."
"Where have you been? We've been looking for you forever. Come in. Oh my gosh Beck it's so good to see you." Tess led her to the living room. Meg looked up in surprise and jumped to her feet to greet her with a hug. Jodi who looked ashen from surprise just sat there and stared.
"Hey Jods." Jodi looked at her with fire in her eyes,
"Nice of you to drop by and show us you're still alive." Her words stung, but they were well deserved.
"Jodi!" Meg said reprimanding her.
"No Meg, she has every right to be angry. As all of you do. Especially Claire. Oh my gosh is that Bom? She's so big now? Where is Claire?" she asked. Meg, Jodi and Tess looked at each other.
"Um Beck, didn't you hear?" Meg asked. Tess looked away and walked over to the windowsill and looked outside the window and up at the stars.
"She was in a car accident, Bom and I were with her. She didn't make it." Tess said quickly, as though trying to detach herself from it. Becky bent over and sat down,
"No, not Claire. NO!!!" Tess walked over to her and draped an arm over her shoulders.
"I never got to say goodbye. I didn't get to tell her I loved her."
"She knew you loved her Becky. She knew. Just like she loved you. And she did you know. She truly did." Tess knew that Becky loved Claire like a sister. Claire was the only person who gave her a chance when no one else would. Claire believed in her, and nurtured her.
"After we left, I was at Jake's farm and I got into a really bad riding accident. I was thrown off my horse and I was in a bad shape. They weren't sure if I was going make it, let along walk. So Jake and his family took me to the states so I can get the best treatments possible. It took over a year to recover, for awhile there I couldn't walk and I shut down. I felt helpless and that in itself almost killed me. Then one day, oh my god…" Becky said as she realised,
"One night I was sulking in my room, and Jake was already asleep beside me and I dreamt of Claire. She told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and that was no unlike me. That I was a fighter and not a quitter and I better not become a quitter on her. She said I can do anything I wanted to if I put my mind to it. So the next day I started my rehab for real and after many months I learned to walk again. I healed. But if it wasn't for Claire, I can't believe she's gone."
"Have you been in the States this whole time? Why didn't you write?" Tess asked.
"Yeah we only got back a month ago. I knew you guys would be somewhat angry and I was too cowardly to face it. I didn't want to tell you guys what happened on the phone, I wanted to tell you in person, this is the first chance we'd gotten to come back home. So I told Jake I was going to come back and see you guys. I'm sorry Tess. How you must have felt, and still feel."
"It's okay Beck. I'm just glad you're here now. Claire would be pleased to know that you'll be here on my wedding day, even if she can't be. You can stay in the guest room."
"Thanks Tess."
"I might go and put Bom to bed and head to bed myself." She picked Charlotte in her arms and looked around the room. They were almost complete.
"I am so glad that you are all here. It means the world to me." Tess said as tears fell down her cheeks. They all felt like something was missing from the puzzle, and it pained them to acknowledge the missing piece.
Tess lay Charlotte on her bed. They had long since gotten rid of her little bed, and returned Claire's bed into her room. Tess lay down next to her and caressed her hair. Tess tip toed downstairs careful not to wake Becky and stood out on the porch and looked up at the stars.
"That one's mine." Tess said closing her eyes,
"And that one's mine!" A voice beside her said with a laugh. Tess was afraid to open her eyes,
"Claire. Thank you! I'm so glad you're here with me." Tess looked to her left and stared at her sister in her pyjamas. Claire looked at her and smiled.
"I never left you Tess. I told you that. I never will. Thank you Tess."
"For what?"
"For what you said to Bom all those months ago when you took her for a ride to tell her about you marrying Nick."
"Thank you for bringing Becky back for my wedding."
"I know it's not the same,"
"But it's enough. I don't think a time will come when I'm never going to miss you, but I understand and accept that this is as good as it's going to get. I love you Claire."
"I love you!" Claire said pulling her close, kissing the side of her head.
Tess woke up and walked to the windowsill and looked up at the stars. One in particular shone brightly. Tess smiled and wrapped her arms around herself.
"Goodnight Claire."

Tess woke up early the next morning and went for a ride. She sat in front of Claire's grave for awhile, soaking in the silence.
"Thanks for always being with me Claire. The rest of what's to come is less daunting knowing you're always with me."
"Thought I'd find you here." Alex said coming from behind her. Tess looked up and smiled at him.
"I just wanted some time with her."
"I'm sorry to disturb." He apologized.
"No, we're done. All has been said." Tess said running her hand over Claire's name on the tombstone. Tess glanced up at Alex,
"I'm really glad you're here Alex, it means a lot to both Nick and myself. Especially to Charlie. Claire too, with you there it's almost like…" Tess didn't need to finish her sentence. Alex knew what she meant. Alex dug into his jeans pocket,
"I wanted to give you something." He pulled out a gold chain with a horseshoe on it. Tess gasped.
"It's just like Claire's." Claire's had remained with her.
"I had this made especially. One for you and one for Charlotte, at the back I had her name engraved. I know how much you wanted her to be here today, and this is as close as I could get to giving you that." Tess' eyes filled with tears as did his.
"Thanks Al." Alex stood behind her and clasped the necklace around her neck.
"Shall we?" he asked holding out his hand to her. Tess nodded. Alex and Tess looked back at the grave and before walking away. Alex let go of Tess' hand and walked over to the grave. He kissed his hand and ran it over her name.
"I love you." He whispered. Alex joined Tess and draped an arm over her shoulder and headed back to get ready.

"You look beautiful Auntie Tess." Charlotte said complimenting her Aunt as she stood in front of the full length mirror in her wedding dress.
"Thank you pumpkin. You look gorgeous." Charlotte grinned and spun around in her dress.
"Look Auntie Tess. Look at what Alex gave me." Charlotte held up her horseshoe necklace proudly. Tess smiled,
"He said it's so I can always keep Mummy close to my heart."
"That's right Sweetie. I got one too. Your Mummy has the exact same one." Charlotte's eyes lit up,
"Really?" Tess nodded through her tears.
"Yeah baby. Come here." Tess said pulling her into an embrace.
"I love you Charlie." "Love you too Auntie Tess."

The wedding was as magical as Tess had always imagined. Its only flaw was the absence of her sister, but Tess knew that Claire was there in spirit. She felt it. It didn't take long for Tess to get pregnant, but she was so busy she hardly had time to really notice. Louise Claire came into the world easily, but loudly. The similarities in looks to Charlotte was uncanny. Charlotte adored Louise and doted on her. Tess watched them reminded of her childhood with Claire. How Claire had doted on her the same way. Watching them grow up and interact was heaven sent to Tess. Though the two fought like any two sisters would, Charlotte and Louise adored each other and we're often the terrible duo when it came to practical jokes and everything else. One was always quick to stick up for the other. After Louise was born Alex moved back to Wilgul, much to Charlotte's disappointment, but the two remained incredibly close. Charlotte had her own room at Wilgul and often spent weekends there. Eagle was finally hers and she kept him at Wilgul while she rode Blaze at Drovers.

"Uncle Nick can I talk to you for a minute?" Charlotte asked knocking on the door of the study,
"Sure Sweetie, come on in and shut the door." Charlotte sat in the chair in front of the desk and fidgeted.
"What's up Squirt?"
"I want to go away to school. High school. I want to be a vet Uncle Nick, and I can't be home schooled for that. I want to go to Uni. I love Drovers and Wilgul, it's home, but I want to be a vet. Think of it, Drover and Wilgul's very own vet. Not to mention what else I could learn. I could come home weekends…" Charlotte was babbling and she knew it. Nick held up his hand,
"Whoa Charls, it's okay. You don't need to make the hard sell to me. Which is why I'm guessing your pitching this to me and not your Aunt and Alex." Charlotte nodded sheepishly.
"I've been surfing the net for something nearby, but the closest high school is Fisher. I don't think driving over two hours to and from would be sensible. So I looked in Adelaide, and they have this boarding school there for Girls and it offers scholarships. So I did an online application which included a test of all sorts, and I got in Uncle Nick. I got in. They're offering me a full scholarship. I want to do this Unc, I'm going to work hard and do this for us."
"I'll talk to your Aunt and Alex." Nick promised, Charlotte jumped from her chair and threw her arms around her Uncle. "You're the best!"
"Congratulations Kiddo. You must have kicked some serious butt in that test." Charlotte grinned,
"I'm a McLeod aren't I?" Nick shook his head laughing, her cockiness reminded him of Claire,
"Just like your Mother!" Charlotte grinned and practically skipped out of the study. Charlotte made sure she disappeared into the study when Nick asked Tess and Alex if they could talk outside on the porch after dinner. Charlotte could hear snippets of their conversation,

"No, she's not going. She's too young." Alex protested.
"Al, she's twelve, and she really wants to do this. She's smart and I think we should encourage her to do it. She needs to be challenged, she'll be home weekends."
"I don't know Nick. I don't feel good about sending her away."
"Come on guys, Al you and I were sent to boarding school, we survived. Tess if you had stayed at Drovers Jack would have sent you away to school too. We owe her that opportunity, especially since she wants it so badly. Look at the trouble she went through in researching and everything. This isn't a whim, she wants this, and she deserves it. Claire would want her to go." As much as Nick hated to use it, he used the Claire card. It was the only one that would make them listen. Reluctantly Tess gave in, followed by Alex shortly after. Charlotte was checking out what could be her school on the net when Alex knocked on the door.
"Come in." Charlotte called out, Alex entered and sat on the chair in front of her.
"So do you really want to do this?" he asked in all seriousness, Charlotte rose from her chair and sat on the desk in front of him.
"Yes I do. Don't you see what this will mean? I'll be learning more and more, and it can help our empire." Alex smiled shaking his head.
"Okay, but you come home every weekend, I will pick you up."
"Done deal Al."

Charlotte spent the rest of her summer hanging out with Louise who was taking it extremely hard that Charlotte was going away to go to school.
"I'll be home weekends Lou."
"POMISE???" Louise asked looking at her with her sad six year old eyes.
"I promise." Charlotte said picking her up and sitting her on her lap.
"Tell you what, we can talk on the phone. Now that you know how to use the computer you can ask your Mum to help you send me e-mails."
Convincing Alex was almost as hard as convincing Louise.
"I promise to e-mail you every day Al."
"You better!"

Alex volunteered if not insisted to be the one to drive Charlotte to school. Everyone came to see her off, even Becky and Jake who had remained in contact after Tess' wedding. Jodi and her husband Tom, Meg and Terry. "You call okay." Tess said with tears in her eyes, Charlotte smiled
"I will. I'll be home soon. Auntie Tess you don't have to worry about me. I'll be okay." Tess pulled her to her chest and hugged her hard.
"Thank you so much for everything Auntie Tess."
"You're welcome Bom. Your Mum and I are so proud of you and we love you very much. Take that with you." Charlotte nodded,
"I love you too." She turned to her Uncle Nick who lifted her up and hugged her hard.
"Take care Squirt. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you." Charlotte kneeled before Louise,
"Remember, I'll be home on Friday okay. Till then you can e-mail me. I love you Lou."
"I love you too Cha-Cha." Charlotte took her cousin in her arms and hugged her.
"Don't cry Lou. I'll be back." With one final wave Charlotte got into the car. She waved until they were clearly out of sight. Charlotte looked back as they drove out of the long driveway.
"I went to see Mum this morning." She said looking out the window as she played with her necklace. Alex glanced over at her,
"She came into my dreams last night, for the first time in a long time. She told me that she was proud of me, of what I've become. That she's grateful for you, Auntie Tess and Uncle Nick for bringing me up so well. She told me that she missed me, and that she loved me." Charlotte felt her eyes fill with tears.
"I miss her. Which is funny if you think about it. How can I miss someone I never met?"
"Because despite that, you love her and she loves you. She lives in you, and in all of us."
"You still miss her don't you?" Knowing it was a question that didn't need to be asked.
"Every minute of every day Bom. Every second." He murmured as a response.
"Does seeing me every day make it hard?" she asked honestly. Alex stopped the car and looked at her,
"Yes and No. Mostly it's comforting to me to see you every day. She would have loved to have seen you grow up, but I don't think she's ever really left you. I think she has seen you blossom into the beautiful person you are. You're so much like her. Stubborn and all." He added lightly. Charlotte grinned.
"Al maybe its time for you to find someone else. I think Mum would want you to be happy. She would want you to have someone like Uncle Nick and Auntie Tess have each other." Alex shrugged,
"I don't need that Bom. Besides, I don't think there's anyone in the world that can make me feel the way she did." Charlotte wanted to tell him he had to try but knew he wasn't ready to hear it.

Charlotte thrived in school. She loved it and made the most of it. As promised she came home almost every weekend. She spent her holidays and summers going from Wilgul to Drovers. She worked hard not only at school, but at home, being a part of the farm in every essence. She had taken over the management of the organic crop that Nick and Tess had started many years ago and developed it into something more. Like her Mother, she was a natural with the animals, most especially horses. Nick often teased Alex that Charlotte gave him a run for his money, which Alex agreed with. Whenever she was home she helped Alex with his training. The business that he and her mother had begun lived on and she was slowly taking over where her mother left off, despite her young age. She was Claire in many ways, but importantly she was her own person. She took Claire's strengths as well as Tess', but she hid her emotions just like Claire which often worried Tess. Nick, Alex and Tess were incredibly proud of her and who she had become. The more she grew up the bitter sweet it got.

Tess and Nick had another girl shortly after Charlotte went away to school. Ruth Elizabeth Ryan. Time passed quickly, the older Charlotte got, the harder it was to come home every weekend due to her studies, but Charlotte was true to her word and never missed out on a weekend at home more than twice. When Alex came to pick her up for the summer she couldn't help but pick up on his nervousness and distractedness, which worried her. She and Alex were more like best mates than anything else, and they knew each other inside out.
"What's with you Ryan?" She asked five minutes into the car ride. Alex grinned and glanced at her.
"Sounding more and more like your mother every day"
"Thank you!" she said proudly,
"Now what's up?" Charlotte pried
"Bom…" he began uncomfortably. Charlotte rolled her eyes. At sixteen Nick, Alex and Tess were still calling her Bom. It made her feel like she was five, but at the same time she loved it. It was special because it was a nickname that her Mother had given her. Alex hesitated,
"It's nothing." Charlotte was about to nag when her phone began to ring.
"Hello" Alex couldn't help but sigh with relief, knowing all he had done was buy himself time to find the courage.
"Where are you?" A voice whined in her ear.
"We just left school Lou. Won't be home for a few hours.
"AWWWW!!!!"
"We'll be back for lunch. I'll be home before you know it. I promise" Louise sighed defeatedly,
"Alright."
"See you soon Lou." Charlotte hung up and smiled at him
"She's been excited about you coming home." Alex explained,
"I see that."
"So tell me about school." Alex asked wanting to divert her attention in case she remembered he hadn't answered her question.
"Al, we talk almost every night, if not we e-mail. There is nothing left to be said." Charlotte said laughing.
"So young and so boring." He said devastated receiving a slap in the arm.
"How'd you go with Atomic?" she asked after his current project.
"He's stubborn, and we're still feeling each other out."
"Can I give it a shot?" she asked excitedly. She loved breaking in horses.
"Sure you can."
"It's good to see you again Squirt." He said with a smile. It had been a couple of months since Charlotte's last visit home. Due to her School Certificate Charlotte asked to stay at school to not break her routine enabling her to study successfully.
"It's good to be going home again. I can't wait to see everyone. I've missed you all. My horses, my rooms, Mum." Charlotte added softly. Charlotte visited her Mother every time she came home, and she was known to spend hours at her grave talking to Claire. Alex looked away for a moment and Charlotte felt bad, she saw that familiar sadness in his eyes that crept in whenever he thought of her. Charlotte soon fell asleep in the car from late nights of studying, and more recently celebrating the end of exams with her friends, and Alex was relieved. They arrived at Drovers just in time for lunch. Charlotte was greeted by Lou who flew out of the front door when she heard the car approaching.
"CHA CHA" she squealed throwing her arms around Charlotte's waist.
"I missed you too Lou." She said laughing.
"You should be flattered. She doesn't get that excited when I get home from my business trips." Nick said coming out of the house followed by Tess and four year old Ruthie. Nick threw his arms around her and lifted her off the ground
"You're getting heavy McLeod!" He teased, which was far from the truth since Charlotte was all bones. Tess smacked her husband,
"Nice Uncle Nick. Is that a bald spot I see?" Charlotte threw back.
"Is that right?" he asked with a familiar glint in his eye and Charlotte screamed and leapt out of his arm before being tickled. She turned to her Aunt and wrapped her arms around her.
"Hey Bom. We've missed you. I've missed you." Tess said sincerely. Like Alex, she and Tess shared an incredible bond.
"I've missed you. It's so good to be home. I can't wait to go for a ride."
"I bet. Come on in. Meg's cooked a feast. Everyone's here to welcome you home." Lunch was loud and enjoyable. Charlotte told them all about school, her life in the city." It reminded Tess of her first days as Drovers, talking about the perks of city life. Movies, cafes, parties. Despite it all Charlotte knew she was a country girl at heart. Lunch was not long devoured when Alex rose from his seat. Charlotte had noticed that he had been quiet since he had picked her up.
"I better head back. There's a few things I need to finish up," Charlotte looked up in surprise and tried not to look disappointed. Alex knew that all he was doing was making Charlotte more suspicious, and that wasn't helping his cause, but he needed to buy some time to pluck up the courage to tell her what he needed to. Charlotte didn't miss the look exchanged by her Aunt and Uncle, something was up and they knew it.
"Later Charls. Talk to you later." Puzzled Charlotte nodded and waved goodbye. She threw Tess a "What's happening?" look, to which Tess shrugged as a response. After another hour Charlotte got changed into her Drover's Outfit, which consisted of old jeans and one of her mother's old shirts, which Tess had kept for her. She pulled her boots on and grabbed her hat.
"Going to take Sorrocco for a ride Auntie Tess." Charlotte called out. Tess popped her head into the barn as Charlotte saddled up her horse. Eagle and Blaze had long since passed, and Sorrocco whom she named after her grandfather's horse was one of Blaze's foals many years ago.
"Say hi to your Mum for me." Charlotte smiled.
"I will. I'll be out awhile. I haven't been home for ages." Tess nodded understanding.
"No problems, just try to come back before dark okay. I know you know this place like the back of your hand, but I still worry."
"Sure Auntie Tess. I promise."
Charlotte sat in front of her Mother's grave and hugged her knees.
"Hey Mum. I'm home. It's good to be back. I've missed this place. I've missed you." After an hour Charlotte looked at the time. She had enough time to ride to Wilgul and hopefully find out what was up with Alex. Charlotte didn't bother announcing her presence when she arrived. She went straight for the stables to check out the ever famous Atomic.
"Hey boy." She said softly, Atomic checked her out before snorting his approval of her. Charlotte giggled. "Not such a tough guy are you? I think you and I are going to get along great." She said confidently before leaving the barn in search of Alex. When she stepped out of the barn she stopped in her tracks as she saw a woman in Alex's arms, she watched him kiss her and Charlotte gasped. At that same moment Alex had looked up and realized she was standing there. Horrified Charlotte ran to Sorrocco and climbed on as fast as she could before galloping out of Wilgul.

"BOM WAIT!!!" Alex screamed after her. Charlotte paid no attention and rode home without a backward glance. She wasn't sure how to feel. A huge part of her was offended as his friend that he hadn't told her he was seeing someone, at the same time a part of her felt like he was cheating on her Mother which was unfair and she knew it. Either way seeing him kiss another lady didn't sit well. When Charlotte got home she asked one of the station hands to take care of Sorrocco and ran upstairs to her room.
"Bom what's wrong?" Tess asked as she ran past her.
"Nothing." She answered shortly closing the door behind her. Before Tess could go after her Alex arrived breathlessly.
"What happened?" Tess asked concerned.
"She saw me with Angela."
"Oh…" she replied understanding. In the beginning she too felt like he had betrayed Claire by being with someone else, but realized she wasn't being fair. Alex deserved to be with somebody. No one could ever replace Claire in his life, but he deserved to have someone love and care for him. Alex ran up to her room and knocked on the door. When she didn't respond Alex opened the door. Charlotte sat on her bed hugging her knees looking away from him.

"Bom, can we talk?" Charlotte lay her head on her arms not looking at him and shook her head.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Angela." Charlotte shrugged her shoulders and remained silent. Alex stayed for a little while but Charlotte wouldn't give an inch. She was in shock and she couldn't quite process.
"We'll talk later okay?" Charlotte shrugged again not looking at him and Alex was devastated. Tess was waiting at the foot of the stairs for him and felt sorry for him.
"Just give her some time Al. She'll come around. She's just in shock." Tess said trying to comfort him, at the same time inwardly hoping she was right. Angela would have been a reality slap for Charlotte. She has had Alex to herself all her life, and Tess understood the betrayal she felt not having been told, or at least warned. Alex nodded grateful for her words and headed home. Tess gave Charlotte some time before checking in on her. Charlotte looked up at the door when it opened,
"I don't want to talk about it Auntie Tess. Please. There's nothing to talk about."
"You are so your Mother's daughter." Tess mumbled to herself. She walked over to her and draped and arm over her shoulder.
"Nothing's changed Bom." Charlotte looked up at her Aunt and looked away,
"But they have." She muttered. For the next few days Charlotte avoided Alex like the plague. More than that she avoided her Mother's grave. What was an essential part of her every day was clinically removed. She poured her heart out on her chores, her crops, and her horses. If she wasn't busy with that, she was studying. Almost overnight she had changed and kept them all at arms length. All except Louise and Ruthie who were too little.

"Hey Braniac, do you want some lunch?" Nick asked popping his head into the study. Charlotte looked up through her glasses and shook her head.
"No thanks Uncle Nick, I'm okay for now. I'm almost finished with the chapter and I don't want to lose momentum. Thank you though," she said politely but distantly.
"Charls…" he began but stopped himself,
"Hmmm" she said looking up from her textbook once more.
"Nothing, see you in a little while."
"Sure" she replied before putting her head down again.
"Any progress?" Tess asked when he returned to the kitchen. Nick shook his head,
"Alex is on his way."
"Is that such a good idea Tess?" He asked uncertainly.
"Probably not, but what could I say? I couldn't turn him away. Nick, this is killing him. Those two have never gone more than 24 hours without contact, and he knows he blew it by not being up front." Tess explained.
"Even if he were, would it have made a difference?" Nick wondered out loud. Alex arrived through the back door just as Charlotte had stepped into the kitchen, her nose still stuck in her book. When she looked up and saw all three of them she felt like she was being interrogated, she stepped backwards trying to make a run for it.
"Charls…" Nick began
"Uh, I'm not hungry thanks."
"Maybe we should talk?" Tess suggested.
"There's nothing to talk about." Charlotte said evenly.
"Bom…" The three of them said in unison. Charlotte brought her hands to her ears,
"Don't call me that. Don't ever call me that again!" she said angrily.
"My name is Charlotte. Bom is someone she created. I hate that name, and I hate her!" Tess, Nick and Alex looked at each other speechlessly as Charlotte stood there shaking. Alex stepped towards her only to have her jump back,
"No!!! Just leave me alone. I'm not my Mother. You don't have to take care of me because of her. She's dead. She left. Move on. That's right, you have." Charlotte added,
"CHARLOTTE," Tess said astonished,
"No I'm sick of this. I'm sick of being treated like Claire's most prized possession. Bom you're so much like your mother. Bom you remind me of you your Mum." Charlotte looked at Alex,
"You have so much of your Mother in you. When do I become me? You all love me because of her. Because I was hers! I was the piece she left behind. I don't know who I am and where I belong. Who I belong with, I thought I did. She's saint Claire in all your eyes, all I see is her leaving me and I hate her for that." Her eyes dropped from her fixed gaze at Alex as the tears fell down. Without another word she ran out of the kitchen.
Alex, Nick and Tess looked from one to the other without a word. There were no words to say. Charlotte found herself in the barn shed she was born in. She felt horrible for all that she had said but there was truth in everything she expressed. She hugged her knees and buried her head in them.

"Its about time you got angry" Charlotte covered her ears in hope to block out the voice.
"I should have known when you stopped visiting it was more than just Angela. You're wrong though, they love you for you, not for me." Charlotte closed her eyes and tried to concentrate.
"You can try all you want but you can't shut me out. Talk to me."
"No!"
"Come on Bom, talk to me. You know I never wanted to leave you."
"But you did. You could have tried harder Mum. We could have stayed in that Ute till help came, all of us. But no, you had to play hero. You made Auntie Tess get out of her side, take me out of the back knowing full well that all that motion would have made the Ute fall faster. You didn't even try. Now I'm alone, just like you were. How could you leave me when you knew how lonely it was? I have no one!" Claire walked over to her daughter and sat beside her.
"I'm sorry Bom. The last thing I wanted was to leave you, but I did what I still believe was right. You were my first priority and I wasn't going to let you or your Auntie Tess die. I know you understand that because you would have done exactly the same thing for Lou or Ruthie. As far as you being alone, you're not alone Kiddo. You have your Auntie Tess and Uncle Nick who love you as their own. You have all the others at Drovers who love you, and you have Alex, just because there's someone new in his life doesn't mean he doesn't love you, or that he stopped loving me. He and I will go on loving each other forever because that's who we are."
"Auntie Tess, Uncle Nick, Lou and Ruthie, they're a family. They belong together. I was never Alex's and never will be, but that didn't matter because we had each other. He made me feel like I belonged with and to someone. Just like Lou and Ruthie belong to Auntie Tess and Uncle Nick. But Alex loved me because I was your daughter. He loves me because I'm you all over again. He loves me because I am a piece of what he's lost." Charlotte stopped and wiped her tears,
"Now with this new lady, he can have his own kids. Who then do I belong to? Why did you have to go? Why couldn't you just take me with you?" Charlotte asked sobbing. Claire took her in her arms and rocked her soothingly.
"Because it wasn't your time my darling. It wasn't your time. You still had and still have the rest of your life to fulfill the dreams that fill your head and your heart. No matter what I know deep down you know where you stand. You know that they love you. It may have began as holding on to something they lost, but it's you who had brightened up their life just by being in it. It's you they know inside and out, just as I wish I had the chance to. It's unfair that you're growing up without a mother, and it's unfair that I can't be a part of your every day life, but we take what we can and it's enough for me to watch you from afar."
"I miss you! I want you here."
"I know. I miss you too. But this is all we have. Let's make the most of it." Charlotte didn't move from her Mother's embrace.
"Give Angela a chance Bom. It's taken awhile for Alex to let someone in, and I know it seems like a betrayal to me, not to mention he was a dope about not telling you, but in the end he was just scared. You have the rest of your life ahead of you Bom. You'll be studying, even traveling but while you're at school, and living out your life. Alex will be alone. You and I both know that's not fair on him. I'm not asking you to make her your best friend, all I'm saying is be fair and give her the chance she deserves. If not for Alex, then for me. I want him to be happy, even if I can't be the one to make him happy."
"I don't really hate you." Charlotte said quietly closing her eyes, exhausted by the events
"I know darling. I know."

Alex found her asleep in a fetal position in the corner of the barn. He brushed the hair away from her face and she stirred. "Hey Kiddo." Charlotte sat up and just looked at him. "Listen Char, I'm sorry I wasn't up front about Angela." "It's none of my business." She said interrupting. "But it is…" "No it's not. I'm not your daughter. I'm not even your niece. You don't need my permission or find the need to justify your position." It then dawned on Alex the root of the situation. He sat beside her and took her hands in his.
"Charlotte Prudence McLeod, you have been my daughter from the moment I claimed you as mine at your mother's riding accident. I meant it then and I mean it now. You and I may not be related by blood, what we have is stronger than that, it's love. Nothing beats that Char. Nothing. Yes, your mother's love brought up closer together and bonded us for life, but I love you for who you are, not for who you came from." Alex paused before continuing,
"As for Angela. I have loved your Mother for as long as I can remember. We were a bit slow on the up take but I have not known a moment where I didn't love your Mum. No one can ever replace her in my life. But Angela has shown me there is life after your Mum, she makes me happy, she makes me feel alive again. No one can ever take your Mum's place, that's untouchable territory, but I care about Angela and I am growing to loving her. Your mother will always be my great love, but she's the past and Angela is present and future. I know I have no place to ask, especially since I blew your first meeting, but it would mean the world to me if you gave her a chance."
"I miss her so much." Charlotte said tearfully, Alex moved closer to her and pulled her in his arms.
"I know Bom. Especially now that you're getting older and older, you need her more. But despite what you said earlier, you're not alone and you do belong. It may not be the most conventional set up in the world but all the right elements are there. We all love you Bom and there is room for you in all our lives, despite who comes and go in them. Bom, you still have me."
"I'm sorry for what I said to you Alex. I didn't mean to be a brat. You know I want you to be happy. I seem to recall many conversations about you finding someone, I guess at the end of it all, despite my best intentions I was a little insecure. My place in your life was threatened. I mean it's been just you and me forever Al, I guess I wasn't ready to give that up. But that's not exactly fair is it? I'm glad you found Angela. I know Mum is too." Charlotte said looking right into his eye.
"Thanks Char. That means a lot to me." Alex said gratefully through his tears.
"Do you want to stay at Wilgul tonight?" Alex saw her hesitate.
"Angela doesn't live at Wilgul Bom. She won't be there tonight." She looked thoughtful for a moment and gave a nod,
"Why don't you invite her for dinner tomorrow Al. We can cook." Alex smiled,
"Sure Kiddo. I'll call her when we get home."
"I'll meet you at Wilgul. I think I owe Uncle Nick and Aunty Tess an apology." Charlotte said standing up.
"Do you want me to pick you up?"
"Nah, it's light for ages. I'll ride Sorrocco to Wilgul. There's somewhere I want to go before I head to Wilgul." Alex understood and said no more.
Charlotte found her Aunt and Uncle on the porch swing that Nick and Alex had built when Charlotte was first born. Charlotte sat herself between them and lay her head on Nick's shoulder as Tess grabbed hold of her hands.
"I'm sorry for what I said. I'm grateful to you guys for loving me so much, despite my psychotic moments. I know Mum didn't want to leave me, and I know Alex needs to move forward and it's unfair of me to want him all to myself for the rest of his life, when I have hopes and dreams I want to fulfill. Although I know you guys love me to death, and you don't treat me differently to Lou and Ruthie, I don't belong to you. Not in the same way, and because Alex and I were left lone souls, it was easier to feel like I belonged with him. It doesn't mean I love him more or anything, just different." Nick kissed the top of her head.
"We know what you mean Charls. We do. Just like you have to remember that you do belong with us. We're your family and we will always be. Just as Alex will be."
"I loved your Mother the moment I was born, and though we had our tough times, she and I became the most important part of each other's lives. Keeping Drovers alive, going through the toughest times. Yes we loved and cared for you partially because of her, but we love you because you're Charlotte. The little baby who's first words were Unc. Much to Alex's dismay. Whose first steps took place in the stables. Char, this and so much more make you who you are. More than just Claire's daughter."
"Aunty Tess, did you hate her for the decision she made that day?" Charlotte asked. Tess' eyes brimmed with tears,
"Yeah, I did." She answered honestly.
"It was the easy and most logical thing to do, but I felt guilty about it. In the end I knew it was the right thing to do. As much as I hated her for it, she was right."
"If I wasn't in the car, would you have left her?" Tess looked away before answering,
"Probably not. But she wouldn't have let me stay there. She would have found a way to get me out of there. Bom, you're not the reason she died. As clinical as it sounds, and as much as it hurts, it was her time. She didn't die in vain, she died for you and for me. She loved you so much." Charlotte looked up at her Aunt and lay her head on Tess' shoulder. Tess wrapped her arms around her,
"Things change Bom, and we're faced with a lot of circumstances, but we make the best of it. We learn from our mistakes and our experiences. Nothing will ever stay the same, that's the one thing you can count on. But the love we feel for you, Your Uncle Nick, the girls, myself, everyone here at Drovers, and most especially Alex will never change. Whoever comes in or out of our lives, you remain our Bom. Okay." Charlotte cried in her Aunt's arms,
"I just miss her so much Auntie Tess. I just want her back."
"We all do darling. We all do, but she lives on in here." Tess promised placing a hand on Charlotte's heart.
"I'm staying at Wilgul tonight, and tomorrow night I asked Alex to invite Angela for dinner. She deserves a fair chance, and Mum would want him to be happy. I really want to give it a shot, but I don't think I could get through it without you two. Will you please come too?"
"Sure Squirt. We're there." Nick replied. Charlotte looked from one to the other,
"You know, you guys," she began,
"We love you too Squirt." Nick said kissing her on the head. Charlotte smiled and stayed in their arms before heading upstairs to grab her backpack. She stopped by Claire's grave and sat down.
"Thanks for always being around when I need you most. I miss you." Charlotte smiled as a light breeze passed her and wrapped her arms around herself.
"I love you too Mum." Charlotte kissed her mother's tombstone and jumped on Sorrocco and headed to Wilgul where Alex was waiting.
"Hey you. How'd you go?" he asked.
"Good." She answered leading Sorrocco to the stables to settle for the night.
"I invited Auntie Tess and Uncle Nick over tomorrow too. I hope you don't mind. I just,"
"Needed a back up?" he said finishing her sentence with a smile. Charlotte looked up and smiled back at him. "Yeah."
"Did you bring homework Braniac?" he teased as his eyes fell to her backpack. She nodded sheepishly.
"Just in case I get a moment to read a little." Alex rolled his eyes amused.
"Put a sock in it Ryan." Charlotte said in mock offense. Alex threw an arm around her shoulder as they headed into the house. Charlotte ran to her room and dumped her bag in there before coming out to help Alex with dinner.

Dinner was awkward at first but it was a beginning. Charlotte spent the rest of the summer going from Drovers to Wilgul, just as she had every summer since she left for school. As promised, Charlotte gave Angela a chance. With time respect and affection grew for each other.

On Charlotte's high school graduation everyone had traveled to Adelaide as she received her Dux award. There wasn't a dry eye in the house as Charlotte gave her speech,
"Today we begin the rest of our lives. The last six years have been a blast. We've worked hard, and we've played hard. This journey has been an experience, but this journey would not have been successful without those who have encouraged and supported us. Our teachers, our peers, more importantly, our families." Charlotte's eyes fell to Tess, Nick, and Alex.
"I am honored to stand before you today and accept this, without my family, I wouldn't have gotten this far, but it is the love and support of one person that has really gotten me through my most difficult times, and that person is my Mother, Claire McLeod. Despite her physical absence in my life, she has never left my side, and it is because of her that I have had the strength that I have. Mum, thank you. I love you and I miss you!" Tess was crying almost uncontrollably, incredibly proud. Alex blew her a kiss from his seat and Nick stood up and clapped long and hard cheering her on.

After the ceremony Charlotte flew into their arms. As they engulfed her in their hugs and congratulations, Charlotte stood before her Aunty Tess and hugged her.
"Thank you so much Aunty Tess. For everything." Charlotte whispered into her ear.
"I am so proud of you Chars! You're Mum would have been smiling at you while you were up on that stage." "I hope so." Charlotte turned to her Uncle Nick. He gathered her in his arms and lifted her from the ground.
"You're the best Uncle a girl could have. Thank you for loving me as your own." When Nick set her down Charlotte ran into Alex's arms and flung her arms around his neck.
"Al…" she whispered,
"I love you too Kiddo. I'm so proud of you."

For the first time in all her life Charlotte spent the summer away from Drovers. In her senior years Charlotte had spent afternoons working as a Vet's assistant near school. She managed to save enough to go to Europe with her closest friends to back pack across Europe, with some help from her Aunt, Uncle and Alex. Summer at Drovers and Wilgul wasn't the same without her, and with only a week to spare till she started Uni, they were more than anxious to see her and spend time with her. Knowing that she wouldn't be able to come home every weekend as she did throughout high school. As to follow tradition, it was Alex who had picked her up from the airport. As she came out of customs doors, he almost hadn't recognized her. Her long hair had been cut short and layered, she was tanned and had grown a foot since he had last seen her three months before the day after her graduation when they took her to the airport. Charlotte scanned the room for anyone she recognized for she wasn't sure who was going to pick her up. When her eyes fell on Alex she grinned widely. As she ran over to him she began to shed her huge back pack and dropped it on the floor before flying

into his arms. Alex laughed as he hugged her tightly.

"I've missed you Bom!"
"I've missed you! Oh my God! It's so good to see you again. Let's go home!!!" she said excitedly.
"See you in a couple of weeks Chars!" her friends yelled from their own reunions. Charlotte turned and waved at them before she and Alex walked arm in arm to the car.
"So how was it?" Alex asked,
"It was AWESOME Al. I loved it. How is everyone? How's Aunty Tess, Uncle Nick, Lou, Ruthie, Angela, everyone at Drovers?"
"They're good. Excited at the prospect of my bringing you home in a few hours."
"I can't wait to get home. I can't wait to ride again." Alex grinned.
"Good to hear it. I was worried being away for so long would make you into a city girl."
"Not a chance! I love the city, but I'm Claire McLeod's daughter aren't I?" Charlotte said proudly. Charlotte chatted excitedly all the way home, as Alex listened in amusement. She was like a kid at Christmas. As he stole glances at her he couldn't help but realize how grown up she was, and how much she looked like Claire. It haunted him almost. It was almost uncanny that her hair was cut the way Claire's was during the time she was pregnant with Charlotte.

"Oh wow!" Charlotte exclaimed as they drove into the driveway. The car barely stopped when Charlotte jumped out of the car and into her Aunt's embrace. Tess hugged her and pulled back to take a good look at her. She almost gasped,
"You have grown up to be as beautiful as your mother."
"That you have Kid!" Nick said taking his turn.
"It's been quiet all summer without you." He teased.
"Thanks a lot Uncle Nick. What are you implying?"
"Cha Cha!!!" Lou said running from the barn and into her arms.
"Hey Lou. I've missed you. You too Ruthie." Charlotte said kneeling down to hug Ruthie.
"I missed you."
"Come on in. Get some rest before lunch, everyone's coming over for lunch to welcome you home."
"Great! I can't wait to see everyone. Meg, Becky, Jodes. Aunty Tess, do you guys mind if I go for a ride before lunch? I haven't been home forever and I want to see Mum." Nick, Alex and Tess exchanged a smile.
"Sure Kiddo. Sorrocco's all set up for you." Nick replied.
"Great I'll change and get going. Be back soon." She gave them all another hug before running up to her room to change into her work gear.
"Still Charls." Nick said smugly. Tess and Alex were worried that she would change in her absence.
"See you guys. I'll be back shortly." Charlotte yelled as she ran out of the back door.

"Hey Mum. Sorry it's been months since I've come to visit. I've missed you heaps you know. I felt your presence at my graduation. That meant the world to me Mum." Charlotte stayed for a little while but was conscious that she had to get back for lunch. When she returned they were all waiting for her on the porch. She smiled and greeted them all with a hug. She was in the middle of an anecdote when her mobile phone began to ring. Lou came out of the house with it,
"Thanks Lou."
"Excuse me. Hello." She answered.
"Hey Cin. How are you? Yeah I got home okay. How about you and Mel?"
"We got home okay. Just wanted to check on you since you had like a four hour car ride." Charlotte laughed. "Thanks. Glad you guys got home okay. See you on Campus grounds in a week."
"For sure. See you then." Charlotte was about to put her phone away when it rang again.
"Sorry." She said apologetically.
"Hello."
"Hey you!" Charlotte's face broke into a smile that did not go unnoticed. She got up from the chair beside Alex and took the call inside.
"Hey to you too. I trust you got home okay."
"Yes I did. And you? What happened to my message?"
"Sorry hon. I went to see Mum as soon as I got here, and when I got back everyone was here." Charlotte said sheepishly.
"That's okay. I was just kidding. I'll let you get back to it."
"Call me later?"
"Sure, message me and I'll call you."
"Will do."
Needless to say she received a few raised eyebrows when she walked out the door.
"What?" she asked innocently.
"Who was that?" Nick asked teasingly as Alex and Tess looked a little bit overprotective.
"Michael, remember one of my really good friends." Charlotte answered blushing.
"Funny, I don't remember him ever being referred to as Hon." Nick said with a smile.
"We've sort of been seeing each other in a non platonic sense of late." Charlotte admitted with a small grin.
"Before you two start panicking, we're taking it slow. We're friends first." Charlotte said looking from Alex to Tess hoping to reassure them.
"Don't worry about them Bom. They'll be okay." Nick assured her.
While everyone had coffee Alex and Charlotte went for a walk.
"So, Michael…"
"Yup. We've known each other since we first started high school. Our boarding schools did that whole combine thing. We clicked from the beginning, and we've been mates ever since. Then about a year ago he said he was starting to feel something, and that he wanted to maybe give an us a go, if I felt the same way. I did, I do. But I was in my last year of school and I didn't want either of us to be distracted, so I said give it some time, and if we still felt the way we did, then we can talk about it after exams. So we did, and when we all went to Europe together, we spent some time together and got to know each other better than we already did. Half way through our trip we started seeing each other officially."
"It sounds like you both have your heads on straight."
"I'd like to think so. But we're far from perfect. We're friends, and that's what means more to me than anything else." "So are you going to tell me why Angela isn't here?" Charlotte asked. Alex hesitated for a moment.
"We decided to go our separate ways."
"What? What happened?"
"It just wasn't working."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah kiddo. I loved Angela, I did, and part of me still does, but it wasn't working out because she felt I never really gave her all of me. And she was right."
"Oh Al. I'm sorry." Charlotte said wrapping her arms around his waist. Alex kissed the top of her head as he hugged her. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I feel bad for Angela, I'm sorry that I hurt her, but in the end, going our separate ways was the only way to go."
"Why didn't you tell me? We talked on the phone on the regular basis."
"I didn't want you to worry."

"Auntie Tess, I know it's my first night back and everything, but would you mind if I go home to Wilgul tonight? Al told me about Angela, and I just want to spend time with him. I'll be back tomorrow." Tess smiled.
"Sure Bom." Charlotte leaned over and hugged her Aunt.
"Thanks Auntie Tess. I'll see you tomorrow."

Charlotte and Alex spent most of the night talking. She had messaged Michael to let him know what was going on, and that she would message him when they were done.
"It's good to have you back Kiddo."
"Good to be back."
When Alex went to sleep Charlotte went down to his study to call Michael.
"Hey Hon." Charlotte said yawning,
"Hey what are you still doing up? You sound tired."
"I am, I just wanted to say goodnight."
"Is he okay?" Michael asked concerned, knowing how much Alex meant to Charlotte.
"I don't know Mike. I really don't. Oh my God!" Charlotte gasped,
"What? What's wrong Hon?"
"Alex, he's sick." Charlotte's eyes fell on Alex's medical report that was underneath his paperwork.
"What do you mean?"
"It says here that he's in the last stages of prostate cancer. Oh my god Mike. He can't die on me too."
"Calm down Chars. Why don't I drive in tomorrow?" Charlotte could barely respond. When she put the phone down she began to cry.
"Shh Bom."
"Mum, it's true?" Claire ran her hands through her daughter's hair.
"Yeah Darling. He's been having trouble the last year or so. He didn't get himself checked out till about a month ago. A month after Angela left."
"Were you there when he found out?"
"Yeah, I was."
"I don't know if I could lose him too Mum. It was hard enough to lose you, but to lose him too."
"I'm sorry Bom."

Alex found Charlotte asleep with her head on his desk. He was about to wake her when he realized what was in her hands. Charlotte stirred and saw the devastated look on his face. Charlotte's face fell as she looked at him. Her lip quivered as she stood up and buried her face on his chest. Alex wrapped his arms around her.
"It's okay Bom. It really is. I'm ready to go."
"I don't want you to go." She whimpered.
"I know baby. I know."

Charlotte rode back to Drovers on one of Alex's horses.
"Aunty Tess!!!" Charlotte called out,
"In the study Char!" Charlotte went into the study,
"I can't have him die on me too." Charlotte said defeated in tears, Tess stood up from her chair and walked over to her putting her arms around her.
"It's hard I know, but at least you have the chance to say goodbye."
"Char…" Nick said knocking on the door.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's someone here for you." Michael stepped up from behind Nick. Charlotte looked at him with tears running down her cheeks, with a couple of steps he held her in his arms, comforting her. Tess and Nick left them alone to talk.
"I'm not going back to school."
"Char…"
"I have to be here." Charlotte said adamantly.
Lou gave Michael a tour around the farm while Charlotte watched from the porch. Alex sat beside her.
"I know what you're thinking and the answer is no." Alex said interrupting her thoughts.
"You are not going to stay here to watch me die. You have worked way too hard to get to where you are now, to have the opportunities that you have, and I will not let you walk away from it on a whim. I don't care if you hate me for it, but you're not going to stay here. You're going to go back to the city as planned, go to school, study your ass off, and be a vet as planned."
"Alex…"
"No Bom, no negotiations on this one. I'm okay for now. I'm going to live each day as it comes. I don't know how long I have, and that doesn't matter. I don't need to spend my last days being with you to know how much you love me and vice versa. This vet thing means more to me than a year or so together. I want you to finish your degree Charlotte. You're going to need it when you get Wilgul."
"I don't want Wilgul. I want you."
"Bom, you will always have me. Just like you have always had your Mum."

After a lot of convincing, Charlotte reluctantly went to school as planned. She took on more Units in hopes of finishing earlier, and came home every weekend. She took summer school and managed to finish her degree in two years. By then Alex had taken a turn for the worst and was just holding on till Charlotte had finished her studies. When Charlotte came home for good, she knew it wouldn't be long till she lost Alex. Every day and every night she spent with him, all the while running Wilgul. Nick saw Claire all over again in her strength and determination. Michael drove in every weekend to spend time with her and throughout the week they talked.

"Hey Bom." Al said weakly as she sat by his bed.
"Hey Al. Do you need anything?" she asked. Alex shook his head as a response. Charlotte held his hand close to her face.
"I just wanted to say that, I couldn't love you any more if you were my own daughter. Because heart and soul, I felt you were mine."
"I love you too Al, I couldn't have asked for a better father. I feel so blessed to have had you."

Alex died in his sleep holding Charlotte's hand. She was asleep with her head on the bed. She woke up and realized that he had passed. Silent tears fell down her cheeks as she kissed his forehead.

"Goodbye Al. I'm going to miss you but I know you're where you've wanted to be for the longest time, and that's to be with her."

They were all better prepared for Alex's death, for he didn't die in a tragic way where no one was able to say their goodbyes, like they were unable to for Claire's. They missed him, but more than anything they were comforted that he was with the one he loved most.

Charlotte ran Wilgul herself, luckily for her she had a wonderful staff who were supportive, and respected her despite her gender and age. She had a lot of help and support from her Aunt and Uncle. Charlotte and Michael were married shortly after his graduation. Nick and Tess gave her away while Lou stood as her Maid of Honour. Her friends Cin and Mel were her bridesmaids, while Ruthie was their flower girl. They set up their own vet clinic, where he practiced professionally full time, and she practiced on the casual basis. When she first realized she was pregnant she rode out to their grave and told them first that she was expecting before announcing it to everyone else. Months later Charlotte gave birth to, Alexandra Claire and Theresa Nicole O'Fallon. Charlotte stayed in hospital for a couple of days.
"Look at them Al. They're gorgeous, our granddaughters!" Charlotte stirred in her sleep and smiled when she saw Claire and Alex standing over her daughters making them laugh.
"Hey you two." She murmured. Claire walked over to her daughter and kissed her head.
"Well done darling. They're gorgeous! We're so proud of you."
"Thanks Mum. I'm so glad you're here. Both of you."
"Never forget Bom, we're always here for you." Alex replied. Charlotte nodded, exhausted closing her eyes again.