A teacher. A goat farmer. A rebellious daughter.
School teacher Sophie Bamford is ready for a sea change, and the small town of Ash Gully seems the perfect place to be left alone. She needs time to heal and rediscover herself, but she never anticipated what she would find as she did. Certainly not the handsome farmer the town loves so much.
Goat farmer William Copely is struggling to make ends meet while trying to be the best dad he can be to his teenage daughter. He doesn’t have time for a relationship, but he just can’t get his daughter’s new school teacher out of his head.
There’s an attraction there that neither of them can deny. But when William’s daughter starts acting out and seems determined to hate her teacher, Sophie feels compelled to get to the bottom of it.
But will the town’s secrets be revealed a little too late?
And is their relationship strong enough to withstand it?
Squelch, squelch … pop!
Sophie slammed her pen against the hard wooden desk and pushed herself to her feet a little more aggressively than she’d intended. If she so much as heard one more squelch or pop, she might actually go insane. Her eyes scanned the small group of students in front of her and zoned in on the source of the frustratingly annoying sounds—one of her Year Nines looking all innocent with her long wavy chestnut brown hair with cherry tones through it and her fair skin. Sophie narrowed her eyes as she saw the girl’s jaw moving.
Sophie opened her mouth to say something—anything—to make the annoying sounds stop when the bell rang around them.
‘Miss, can we go now?’
Sighing, Sophie relaxed her tightly balled hands and pressed her fingertips into her desk. ‘Yes, that’s all for today. Give me your papers on your way out, and before any of you start complaining that your new teacher made you do a test on the first day of school, trust me. It’s better we find out what you do and do not know now before we jump in the deep end.’
Her small class gathered around her, sending their papers haphazardly in her direction. She grasped for the ones that didn’t quite make it into her hands and almost missed the annoying Year Niner’s comment as she headed towards the door.
‘This blows,’ the girl said to the other two in her year level and a Year Eighter. Her little posse muttered their agreements and shot disapproving looks towards Sophie.
‘And tomorrow, Lavinia,’ Sophie called after the retreating students. The chestnut-haired girl gave her that bored look only teenagers know how to pull off. ‘Leave the bubblegum at home.’
The girl’s eyebrow shot up and she blew another bubble in defiance. Pop!
Sophie cringed at the horrible sound and dropped into the chair behind her desk once the kids were out of sight. She hadn’t realised how exhausting teaching could be until now. Had she made a mistake coming to Ash Gully?
Sophie’s only other female co-worker popped her head through the door and, once satisfied the room was empty, wandered in. Josephine Romano looked to be a few years younger than Sophie and her hair was long, wavy and dark—almost black, though Sophie was sure she could see some brown when the light hit it just right. Her lips were full, her nose straight, and her eyes on the greener side of hazel. She spoke English fluently, but her Italian accent was noticeable. Josephine didn’t bother getting a chair and settled herself on the edge of Sophie’s desk instead.
‘How was your first day, So? You don’t mind if I call you So, do you?’
Sophie shrugged, waving a hand towards the slim woman. Honestly, she’d never liked being called So before, but Josephine’s accent made it sound more like a sophisticated name rather than a question. ‘Only if I can call you Jo,’ Sophie jested.
Josephine laughed, her giggle rich and vibrant. It must have been contagious, because Sophie soon found herself smiling and feeling a little lighter after her long day. ‘So and Jo. I think it could work.’ Josephine nodded her approval, her long hair still staying in place despite the movement. Sophie stopped her hand from reaching towards her own uncooperative hair that she had to regularly pin back from her face. ‘Well, how was your first day? Any of the kids give you trouble?’
Sophie moaned, sinking back into her chair. ‘I don’t think I have ever hated bubblegum so much in my life.’
Josephine continued nodding. ‘Mmm, there’s always one. Who was it?’
Josephine’s eyes went wide. ‘Really? Wow. I didn’t see that one coming.’
Sophie’s brows pulled together. Josephine genuinely looked surprised. Before Sophie could say anything more, a man came in, his brown hair neat, his glasses sitting high on his nose, and an afternoon shadow setting in on his clean-shaven face. Handsome, though Sophie hated to admit it.
‘Hello,’ he said, drawing the syllables out. He grabbed the closest chair, spun it around and settled in. ‘What did I miss?’
‘Lavinia is the bubblegummer this year,’ Josephine said, filling him in.
‘No kidding,’ he said, his eyes going just as wide as Josephine’s had. He reached a hand across the desk towards Sophie. ‘Haven’t had a chance to introduce myself yet. Benjamin Engel, but most people call me Ben. I’m the four to six teacher.’
‘Sophie Bamford.’ She shook his hand then relaxed back in her chair, her arms resting on the desk. She shifted her gaze to Josephine. ‘So that would make you the K to three teacher?’
Josephine nodded. ‘It was just the two of us. Now there are three.’
Sophie swallowed. When she’d heard she’d gotten the position at Ash Gully Public School, she’d known it was going to be a small school ranging from kindergarten to Year Nine. But to have a grand total of three teachers? ‘Who taught the sevens to nines before me?’
‘Rudy Nesson,’ Josephine said.
‘He’s the principal though.’
‘He was a teacher first.’ Ben wagged a finger between himself and Josephine. ‘He taught us.’
‘You both went here?’ Sophie wasn’t sure why she found that surprising. She’d bet not many people would move to a small town with a total population of four hundred and seventeen, give or take. But she also figured not many stuck around either.
‘Benny was the bubblegummer of our year,’ Josephine said with a wink.
‘And my, how the tables have turned,’ Ben said. ‘But if we’re to offer any advice, it would be to be strict with these kids. Something seems to change in them once they hit high school, and if Lavinia is the bubblegummer …’
Sophie shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. Is there some kind of significance to Lavinia being the bubblegummer?’
‘Lavinia’s always been a good kid,’ Josephine said. ‘Not a goody-two-shoes, but not bad either. Just good. You were a student counsellor before this, right?’ Sophie nodded, and Josephine reached over and rested her hand on Sophie’s forearm. ‘Well, first teaching job or not, I think you’re a right fit for these kids. Just set some ground rules and tell them there will be consequences for their actions.’
Josephine slid off the desk and straightened her black dress, and Ben rose to his feet and tucked his chair back where he got it from. ‘We’re gonna head to the pub for a drink. You coming?’ he said.
Sophie held her breath for a second. Oh, the idea of having a drink to settle the first-day stresses was appealing, and she would really love to develop a friendship with these two. Hell, they might be the only friends she would have here, especially if the rest of the town took to her as well as her students had. Her eyes fell to the pile of papers on her desk and she let out a sigh.
‘You know, I’d love to, but I have to mark these papers.’ She looked up at the duo in time to catch them sharing a look, Josephine’s eyebrow raised. ‘Sorry.’
Josephine took in a deep breath and smiled. ‘All good, So. Drinks are our thing. You can join us another time.’
‘Sure.’ Sophie smiled back, but she really was disappointed she couldn’t join them. What kind of teacher gave their students a quiz on the first day, anyway? Maybe she really wasn’t cut out for this. She watched as her co-workers left, Ben pausing in the doorway to glance back at her.
‘Don’t worry too much about Lavinia. Not all bubblegummers end up bad.’
‘Says the king himself,’ Josephine muttered.
Ben flashed Sophie a smile and a wink before disappearing from view. Sophie pressed back into her chair again, staring at the pile of papers in front of her. The top one was upside down. Letting out a big, steadying breath, she flicked it over to see Lavinia’s name. And every question unanswered.
William Copely liked to think of himself as a hardworking, determined man who was incredibly hard to break. But with everything that had been going on, he was starting to feel like he was at the end of his tether. The summer had been hard on his already struggling apple trees, and his wander through the orchard—or what was left of it—showed just how much it had taken its toll.
Last bushfire season had been a shocker not just for this area, but for much of Australia. Ash Gully had just been another close victim. While the small town had mostly been saved, William’s farm hadn’t been so lucky. The fires raged through the hills his farm backed onto, and he’d lost a good portion of his apple trees—many burned beyond saving, and a good portion of the rest badly damaged. He’d attempted grafting and reviving any that had looked like they had a chance, but a lot had been unsuccessful, and those that had taken were still not looking promising.
For a long, long year, he’d been doing his research and pouring all of himself and all of the resources he couldn’t afford into getting his livelihood up and running again. And still. He stomped up the front steps of his house and slumped onto the old wooden chair on the verandah. He set his hat on the table beside him and wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand. His faithful blue heeler kelpie cross, Rosa, lapped at the water in her dish and slumped at his feet.
Australian summers were relentless, and this year was no exception. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the unripened apple he’d plucked from a tree. It was small, undersized. And there weren’t nearly enough of them. Raising his hand, he tossed the apple as far as he could, putting all his anger into it, and watched it bounce and roll down the slope. He’d held out hope that his attempts might work, but the last resort of replanting and starting afresh was looking like the only option.
If only water wasn’t a limited resource. If only the fires hadn’t mercilessly torn through the country. If only he’d stayed to fight for his farm. But he couldn’t change any of those things. Water had been a tight resource for years, and the fires were a devastating tragedy. And he had Vinnie to think of. He wasn’t just a single farmer who could stay and fight for his livelihood—the farm that had been in his family for generations. He was a father. And his daughter was worth more to him than any property.
In the distance, he could see his goat herd making their way to the milking shed slightly earlier than usual, bleating and looking uncomfortable. Perhaps the heat had gotten to them, too. He swiped at his brow again and reached for his hat.
He nodded his head towards his teenage daughter, who had just come out of the house. ‘Vinnie. Didn’t see you get home. How was school?’
Vinnie shrugged. ‘School was school. And I only came home to pick something up. Okay if I go to Jane’s? We’ve got a ton of homework to do and figured we’d study together.’
‘On the first day of school?’
‘New teacher. She even made us do a test today. Anyway, all good?’
‘Ah, yeah. Sure. Just don’t stay out too late.’
‘I’ll stay at hers for tea. Don’t wait up!’
He watched as Vinnie traipsed down the steps and pedalled her bike back towards town. God, how she looked like her mother. He swallowed the bitterness that formed a lump in his throat and pushed himself to his feet, planting his hat on his head. He had a lot more to worry about than the woman who’d walked out on him and their kid ten years ago.
‘Time for milking, Rosa.’
He headed towards his ute and let Rosa jump up before him. He glanced at the time as he drove down to the milking shed where the small sea of white, brown and black crowded around the gates. If Vinnie was at her friend’s place for tea and he could get the milking done in time, he might just head into town for a feed at the pub. God knows he needed a drink.
Release date: 2022-11-01