Starting over was never going to be easy, especially as he’s looking for the one thing she can’t give … the truth.
Set in the heart of the Australian countryside comes a compelling romance with a touch of suspense from bestselling author Mandy Magro.
Savannah Garret remains resolute in testifying as the sole eyewitness in Brisbane’s most dangerous criminal case. For safety, the police have furnished her with a new identity and instructions to keep to herself. With a shiny new driver’s licence in hand and job as a barmaid lined up, this die-hard city girl finds herself stepping off a bus and into the desolate street of the small country town she’s now to call home.
Ash Sullivan has it all, money at his fingertips, his own property, and a successful chopper mustering business. But when it comes to love, he’s failed miserably. Bitter experience has taught him that if he is ever lucky enough to meet a special woman he can fall for again, she has to be upfront from the get-go, no matter what.
These are two people, as different as chalk and cheese, who were never meant to meet until fate intervened. Will they grow to be the person each other needs? Or will their differences drive them apart?
Far North Queensland
As the red-dirt roads finally gave way to bitumen, Ash Sullivan flicked his headlights to low-beam and turned off his spotlights. It had been a while since he’d had white lines leading the way, more accustomed to his tyres kicking up a trail of dust, and his excitement was building, knowing he was almost home.
He pressed the gizmo to squirt water over his dirty windscreen, the wipers creating a red arc that framed the progressively lusher landscape. The farmhouses were becoming more frequent, and the livestock dotting the paddocks looked a lot healthier than those he’d been mustering. And instead of flat plains with trees few and far between, neatly lined rows of avocado, macadamia and mango trees hung heavy with the year’s bounty, all backdropped by soaring mountain ranges.
Australia was a place of such sharp contrast, of land both foreboding and fertile, and Ash was proud to make a living by working amongst it all.
He tapped his thumbs against the steering wheel in time to one of his favourite tunes blaring from the speakers. Hank Williams’ deep twangy voice helped to make the monotonous journey a little more bearable, as did the entire packet of Minties he’d devoured, along with two cans of Red Bull. Lord knew any distraction was welcome on the five-hour route he’d travelled more times than he could count over the past seven years. Saving every penny he could, he hoped to soon bring to fruition his dream of owning a chopper-mustering business so he didn’t have to continue making a living in the saddle – his back was starting to pay the price of his being a stockman.
Now back where he could get good phone service, he needed to hear his girlfriend’s sweet voice, but he wasn’t about to let on he was arriving home a day early – he wanted to surprise her, in more ways than one.
‘Hey Siri. Call Hannah.’
Siri did as asked. The phone rang through the speakers, two, three, four times, before going to voicemail. ‘Hi, you’ve reached Hannah, I can’t get to the phone right now, so please leave a message and I’ll call you back soon.’
‘Hey, babe. Just calling to say I love you, and miss you,’ he said with a huge smile on his dial before ending the call.
In the distance, the soft glow of his home town caught his eye. The tiny township was going to be a welcome change from the incessant flies and barren countryside of outback Australia. He fought the urge to slam the accelerator to the floor – he’d arrive in Atherton soon enough. After almost two months away, mustering wild cattle and buffalo up the northern tip of Australia while evading crocs bigger than Ben-Hur, he couldn’t wait to be back in civilisation, take his high school sweetheart into his arms and tell her how much he loved her.
Beyond the cab of his beat-up old LandCruiser, the velvet sky glimmered with countless stars, as if it too was celebrating what was about to happen. Although nervous, he was optimistic his proposal was going to be all he’d imagined it to be. He’d intended to pop the question the weekend of Hannah’s sister’s car accident, but had tucked the ring away. Hannah was mourning Heather, her sister, and it wasn’t the time for a marriage proposal. Instead, he gave Hannah all the time and support she needed to begin to heal her broken heart. He’d been waiting for the right moment, and tonight felt like it had come. He prayed he was right.
Cruising along the quiet main street of Atherton, he saw a line of cars parked out front of the top pub – not unusual for nine o’clock on a Saturday night. He hoped Hannah wasn’t in there, amongst the rowdy crowd – she loved to dance when there was a band playing. Not sounding like herself when he’d called first thing that morning, she’d said she was feeling run down, like she was possibly getting a flu, and had agreed she needed an early night. He was going to wake her with a kiss.
Passing their favourite café, then the butcher shop, Ash indicated and turned down their street. His hands were growing sweaty as he took a deep breath, running what he was going to say through his mind for what felt like the millionth time. He couldn’t wait to give her the one-carat diamond engagement ring his late grandmother had left to him, her dying wish that he marry the love of his life and have a family together. He liked to believe his dear Granny Fay was watching down from heaven because, with any luck, he was about to fulfil their shared aspiration.
Pulling up in his usual spot, he killed the engine and tapped his top pocket again to check the ring box was still there. He’d get his bags and swag out later. A spring in his step, he strode down the footpath and through the side gate, plucked a red rose from the garden and crept around to the back door. The spare key was where they always left it, beneath the old gumboot that was now home to the maidenhair fern he’d bought Hannah at the local market. She had a green thumb, unlike him.
Slipping his boots and socks off and the key into the lock, he quietly turned it and stepped inside. The house was dark and the timber floorboards were cool against his feet. He sighed. It was good to be home.
The tinkle of a bell sounded as Minx, their three-year-old cat, scurried into the room and leaped up onto the kitchen bench – a place she knew she shouldn’t be. Ash chuckled, deciding not to reprimand her this time. It was nice to be eagerly welcomed home. The moggy meowed urgently, as if trying to tell him something important. Wishing he understood cat lingo, he scooped the rescued tabby up and cuddled her to him, noting with a wry smile that her bowl at his feet was overflowing with dried food. Hannah had always been a sucker for strays, bless her beautiful heart, and it appeared she was overfeeding Minx too. He grimaced at something wet and sticky on the cat’s coat, and wiped his hand off on his jeans. God only knew what mischief the cat had been up to. He’d clean them both up as soon as he got to lay a kiss on his girl.
In the lounge room, the sheer curtains fluttering in the gentle breeze allowed just enough silvery moonlight to filter in so he could see the dirty plates and cups littering the coffee table, with a half-empty pizza box and fully empty vodka bottle lying on the floor. Concern gripped him – it was very unlike Hannah to be so untidy. He tiptoed down the hallway, past the line of framed family photos, his ears honed. Their bedroom door was wide open, and the curtains still tied back on the windows. His heart sank at the piles of dirty clothes covering the floor, the tousled bed, and no Hannah. And the room stank of stale cigarettes. Striding over, he shoved the windows open to allow the fresh air in. An ashtray filled with stubbed-out rollies sat on the windowsill. When had Hannah started smoking? Had she been hiding it from him? And where in the hell was she? Maybe she’d gone against his advice and headed to the pub after all. He just hoped she didn’t drink too much because he was sure as anything that a fight would ensue – he was worried about her, and she wasn’t going to like his ‘suffocating attention’, as she’d put it.
Turning the bedside lamp on, he laid eyes on a curled-up ten-dollar note alongside specks of white powder. Dropping the rose, he snatched a little plastic bag from the dressing table, with traces of what he assumed was illicit drugs. It was then that he spotted the ensuite door ajar and heard water dripping. His held breath released a little. Maybe Hannah was enjoying one of her baths. She’d always liked him to run one for her at the end of a long day, and he’d always made sure to construct a mountain of bubbles for her to climb into.
With Minx still cradled in his arms, he stood, his heart in his throat – he was going to have to confront her about the mess and the drugs and the cigarettes, and he hated it. Tonight was meant to have gone so differently. He’d imagined her saying yes and then them making love all night long.
Ash cracked the ensuite door wider and, to his surprise, found the bathroom was pitch-black, with not even a flicker of a candle. ‘Hannah, are you in there?’
The ear-piercing silence sent a chill racing up his spine. Minx hissed, then growled. Something wasn’t right. Adrenaline jolted him, and with dread in his heart, he flipped the switch. The overhead fluorescent bulb flared to life and Minx leaped from his arms and scurried out the door.
Ash’s breath caught as the sight before him chilled him to the very core.