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Can love conquer all? Read a sneak peek from Secrets of Riverside by Mandy Magro


Can love conquer all? Read a sneak peek from Secrets of Riverside by Mandy Magro

Can love conquer all? A moving story of overcoming the past and second chances from bestselling Australian romance author Mandy Magro.

Can their love heal the shadows of the past?

After losing her family in a tragic fire when she was a child, Amelia Price has battled to put the shattered pieces of her life back together. Even so, she’s never felt like she belongs anywhere, and she longs for stability and love. When a mysterious letter turns up at her apartment with hints that she’ll uncover the truth behind what happened all those years ago if she goes to the sleepy, picturesque town of Riverside, she sets off on a journey to tropical Far North Queensland.

Jarrah King owns and runs the Riverside Roadhouse. He loves the simpleness of country living, and the fact it gives him complete anonymity. Over the years he’s made a life for himself under a new name, however his past has never stopped haunting him.

When a sassy blonde takes up the new cook position, he can’t help but be drawn to her vivacious personality. But he can tell there’s also pain hiding underneath her bubbly facade and he longs to erase those shadows. However, lowering his defences to let her in may risk his new identity, as well as everything he holds dear.

Can Amelia show him that love is worth the risk? Or will the secrets of their entwined past tear them apart forever?

An electrical storm had cut all electricity to the Sydney suburb of Parramatta, leaving Amelia’s tiny bedroom hot and humid. It had been hard enough falling asleep at midnight, but now she couldn’t rouse herself from her torturous slumber. Her exhaustion from the aftermath of her persistent nightmares had become a burden too heavy to carry any longer. With her sweaty limbs thrashing beneath the sheets, she felt the constricting grip of the ghosts of her past closing in on her. Reaching for her, their clawed fingers pressed through her flesh and clenched her insides, squeezing her racing heart so tightly she could barely take a breath.

Wake up Millie, please, wake up!

With every bit of might she tried to heave herself from the horrors of her dream. But just like every other time, the looming shadows had her at their mercy, the faceless beings skilfully pulling her under. Terrified, she scratched and clawed at her unconsciousness, desperately trying to climb to the surface. She didn’t want to go through this anymore. But just like when her worst nightmare had become her reality all those years ago, she was stuck in a kind of hell, and it was dark, so damn dark, and scorching hot.

Helplessness consumed her and she slipped further into darkness. A strangled sound escaped her as everything spun in crazy circles. Then the fiery floor she was scrambling upon gave way, and she was tumbling defencelessly into an even blacker abyss. Thick grey smoke furled around her like a giant snake, asphyxiating her. Over her wheezing breaths, she could hear her father’s frantic roars, her mother’s bloodcurdling screams and somewhere in the fire-engulfed house her little brother, Zack, was crying out for help. Begging for her to save him. She tried to suck in a breath, and then another, so she could call out to him, so she could somehow soothe him, but there was no oxygen left. Her lungs burnt with the lack of it. She had to get to him. Or die trying.

On her hands and knees, she endeavoured to crawl beneath the flames devouring the walls, so she could get him, but there was nowhere left to go. There was no escape. She was trapped. Powerless. Dying.

Backed into a corner where the red-hot flames stretched and reached from the walls, licking at her skin, scorching her, melting her flesh right through to the bone. The pain was excruciating. She wanted to die, so the hurt would stop. There was a loud boom, and the flames got closer, bigger, ravenously engulfing her world. Crying out, she tried to shield herself with her arms, hoping it would somehow help her survive the roaring fire that was swallowing her home, her family, and her breath.

‘Millie!’ Her name carried, echoed, bounced off the fire-consumed ceiling. ‘Millie, wake up!’

Over her laboured breath, Millie heard the flick of a switch and then an overhead light burned to blinding light, searing through her fastened eyelids and drawing her towards the beautiful, iridescent surface. She instinctively knew there was peace to be found there. But would she make it? Could she? Then hands were upon her, shaking her. Begging her.

‘Millie, you’re having another nightmare, please wake up.’

Ebony’s shrill voice grabbed her and quickly lifted her to the surface of reality.

Whimpering, she finally woke, and before she could form words in her dry mouth, Ebony’s arms were around her. ‘Shhh, Millie, I got you, hon,’ she cooed, rubbing her back. ‘It’s okay, you’re safe now.’

Her hands coming to rest on her flat, empty belly, Millie’s attention snapped to what had become her heartbreaking reality. A renewed rush of profound sorrow overcame her. Somehow, she’d rather be back in her nightmare than having to face the raw emotions over her miscarriage.

As she pulled back a little to look her in the eyes, Ebony’s expression was one of complete sadness. ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this, Millie, I just wish there was more I could do to help you come out the other side of this incredibly hard time.’

‘You’re doing everything you can, Ebs.’ Beyond grateful for her one and only true friend in what had proven to be a big bad world, Millie fell against Ebony’s shoulder as her hands came to grip the back of her friend’s nightshirt. ‘Thank you for letting me stay here while I figure things out.’ Her words were muffled. ‘I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you.’

They stayed like that for a few moments more, two broken, deeply connected souls holding one another tight, until Millie’s tears slowed and she untangled her arms from Ebony. ‘I’m so sorry for waking you up again, Ebs.’ Sniffling, she wiped at her tear-stained cheeks. ‘I swear these bloody nightmares are going to be the death of me one day.’

‘It’s all good. I get it, and I got you, always and forever, my darling friend.’ Ebony smiled sadly. ‘After what you’ve been through lately,’ she rested a hand on Millie’s bouncing leg, instantly steadying her, ‘and with what happened to you as a child, well, they are things most people could never dream of going through.’ A frown creased her forehead. ‘Add in the living hell your bastard of an ex has put you through the past few years, and then losing your baby because of what he did, well … let’s just say you know how much I wish I could make him pay for treating you so horribly, and I don’t mean in a legal sense either.’

‘I know you want to hit him where it hurts, Ebs, but violence doesn’t solve anything.’ God only knew just how much she was aware of this after being Jason’s punching bag for way too long.

‘Yes, I know, but it doesn’t stop me dreaming of doing to him what he’s done to you.’ Ebony tucked wisps of copper hair behind her pixie-shaped ears that were dotted with a myriad of piercings. ‘And just for the record, you don’t have to keep thanking me for helping you. You’ve done your fair share of being there for me when my world fell apart too, don’t forget.’

Looking into her friend’s desolate gaze, Millie briefly recalled the night they’d gotten the call four years ago, telling them that Ebony’s parents had died in a light plane crash, but she quickly swallowed down the heart-wrenching emotions that came with the recollection. ‘Yeah, I know we’ve both been each other’s rocks, and partners in crime sometimes too, over the years.’ She nodded, trying to smile while sniffling. ‘But with the shifts you’re pulling at the hospital and then over at the youth centre, you need your beauty sleep when you can get it, instead of being up at all hours consoling me.’ Ebony had been saving money for her dream trip to Africa, and Millie was excited for her.

‘Meh, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ Ebony grinned then nudged Millie’s arm. ‘And for your information, Miss Price, I don’t need beauty sleep, I mean, just look at me.’ She pulled the most grotesque face possible. ‘I’m gorgeous just as I am, don’t you reckon?’

‘Oh my gosh, you loon.’ Chuckling, Millie kissed her friend’s cheek, and then gave her a playful shove, unwittingly propelling Ebony from the edge of her bed and to the floor. ‘Oh crap …’ Flopping to her side, she hung her head over the edge of the bed and matched Ebony’s sassy grin. ‘Sorry, I honestly didn’t mean to do that.’

‘Yeah, right, just come right out and admit it, you’re jealous of my insane beauty.’ Ebony pulled the same humorous facial expression again, sending both of them into uncontrollable laughter.

Gathering what she could of herself, Millie wiped tears of both misery and mirth from her cheeks as she rose from the bed and offered Ebony a hand up from the floor.

Accepting the offer, Ebony jumped to her feet and then plucked her knickers from where they’d crept up her bum. ‘Right, I’m going to go back to bed, to try and get a few more hours sleep before I have to get back to the grindstone of back-to-back shifts again.’

Millie nodded affirmatively. ‘Yes, good idea, you do that and I’ll make sure to stay super quiet while I get ready for another day spent job hunting.’

‘I’m sorry that arsehole fired you from the service station for not being able to work the days following your miscarriage.’ She huffed and shook her head. ‘I really hope you find something you’d love to do this time, like cooking or working in a quaint café, and not take any old job just to make ends meet.’
Millie crossed her fingers. ‘Let’s hope, hey.’

Ebony grabbed both of her hands and gave them a squeeze. ‘Are you sure you’re okay with money, on top of everything else? Because I don’t mind lending you some cash if you’re struggling.’

‘I’m okay, Ebs.’ She had a little bit tucked away, but a job would have to come sooner rather than later if she didn’t want to land in hot water, and she also wanted to contribute to staying with Ebony too, as soon as possible. ‘You’ve kindly given me a place to stay until I’m back on my feet again, and that’s priceless.’
‘Don’t speak of it, I love having you stay here with me, so stay as long as you want to.’ Ebony gave her a quick hug. ‘I love you so much, hon.’

‘I love you too, Ebs, to the moon and back.’ Millie smiled through her melancholy as a crazy thought came to her. ‘Hey, seeing as we don’t get to hang out much lately, how about I come with you on your jog Monday morning, so we can spend a bit of precious time together before we sail like ships in the night for the entire week again?’

‘Really?’ Ebony pulled an are-you-sure face. ‘Because you’re not really an exercise kind of gal.’

‘Yes, really.’ Millie’s trim body owed more to her having a fantastic metabolism and good genes, rather than her hitting the gym or treadmill.

‘Righto.’ Ebony smirked, and her green eyes twinkled with mischief. ‘Whatever happened to your motto of “why run when nothing is chasing you”?’

‘Ha, yeah, there is that, but I miss you, so I’ll brave breaking a sweat to hang out with you for a little bit.’
‘Alrighty then, it’s a date, my friend.’ Ebony grinned and waggled a finger at her. ‘And I’m holding you to it, so no excuses at six o’clock Monday morning, capisce?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ Millie replied spiritedly and gave a salute.

‘Good.’ Ebony nodded. ‘Night then.’ She paused and offered a kind smile before she disappeared through the doorway.

‘Sleep tight,’ Millie called back as a drawn-out meow brought her gaze to the huge tabby cat now pressing his face up against her bedroom window. ‘Oh hey, Felix, oh my gosh, I’ve been worried about you, buddy.’

Padding over to the slightly ajar window, she pulled it up and reached out to pluck her feral, and very heavy, moggy visitor from the fire-escape ledge – the safety feature that had been one of the main reasons Ebony had snapped up the pokey rundown apartment a year earlier. Millie understood Ebony had done it for her, for the occasional nights that she slept over, so she’d feel safe if there was ever a fire. Now that she’d finally plucked up the courage to escape from her violent boyfriend’s clutches – with her Suzuki Jimny that was almost as old as she was, a backpack of clothes and personal items, and nine hundred and seventy-two dollars in her pocket, along with an empty thousand-dollar credit card – this room was her haven. And she had Ebony to

thank for her new path, which would hopefully lead to new opportunities and a bright future. Her forever friend had been her driving force, and her saviour, as she’d helped her to flee like a thief in the night three weeks earlier, leaving the man who’d ruled her with an iron fist and tight money strings passed out on the lounge room floor as drunk as a skunk once again. Thank goodness those days were behind her now, gone, part of her past. But leaving the skeletons in the closet was easier said than done. To this day, she longed to know who the guy was who had saved her from the fire.

Cuddling the cat, who had been visiting the apartment ever since Ebony had moved in, she placed herself back in the present moment as she relished Felix’s purrs that were so loud he sounded like a mini generator. ‘I was starting to think you’d skipped town, buddy, or one of those horrid alley cats had finally gotten one over you. Thank goodness you’re okay.’ She gently ruffled his head. ‘So what have you been up to the past four days, you scallywag? Huh?’

Felix responded with a string of meows, as if understanding her concerns and filling her in on his adventures on the streets of Parramatta, as she carried him into the kitchen of the small two-bedder apartment and plonked him down on the floor. Purring louder still, he furled himself around her legs, lovingly rubbing her ankles with the grace of a ballerina as she poured him a bowl of milk, placed it onto the floor to his delight, then grabbed a can of house-brand tuna from the back of the cupboard. After peeling back the lid, she tipped it onto a saucer and plonked it next to his now empty bowl. Folding her arms, she rested against the bench and watched him eat like he was starving. With his ginger coat and playful, loving nature, Felix reminded

her so much of the cat her parents had gifted her on their last Christmas morning together. She’d even named him after her feline friend who was now in kitty heaven after succumbing to cancer. Felix the first had gotten her through countless nights of sobbing herself to sleep as a fifteen-year-old girl, and now Felix the second was doing the same when he dropped in for a visit.

‘I really have missed you lots, buddy.’ She smiled as he glanced up at her through wide eyes and then got back to his food. ‘Don’t be leaving so many days between visits next time, my friend.’

Turning to the early-morning light now spilling through the kitchen window, she was momentarily caught up in the splendour of the kaleidoscope of colours bouncing off the pretty suncatcher she’d made at one of Ebony’s Art for Healing classes down at the youth club. Along the windowsill sat her recent addition to the apartment, three pots of herbs: the parsley, basil and mint were flourishing in the warmest spot.

Growing edibles brought her happiness. As did music – country, seventies rock, old crooners, none of this modern-day stuff the radio stations quite often played. It was little things, the simple things, things with heart and soul, people with old-fashioned values, that filled her with joy, along with wide open fields, being around horses, sunshine on her face, the smell of freshly cut grass, the scent of leather in a tack room, the stillness of a star-studded country night sky, a campfire – all the pleasures that came with country life.

Apart from the sunshine on her face, she lacked for all the rest. As an orphaned fifteen-year-old who’d known nothing else but country values, life in the big smoke had been like a slap to the face, over and over again. The hectic heartbeat of Sydney didn’t provide such simplicities. The skyline of the city she’d called home for fifteen years now was a far cry from the untainted Blue Mountain landscape of her youth. Ebony and her parents had moved to Sydney not long after the fire, to start afresh, and Millie had come with them. Shirley and Greg Strathmore had taken her in as their own, loving her and caring for her, and Felix the first, unconditionally. And for that, she would be eternally grateful. It made Ebony the sister she’d never had, and Ebony’s wonderful parents the only family she’d ever been graced with after losing her own.

Plucking a leaf from the mint, she popped it into her mouth, savouring the refreshing flavour as it took her back to happier days, when she would spend time with her mum out in the garden, playing beneath the sprinkler with her brother, or in the heart of the house cooking up a storm with the fresh produce they’d just picked from the lush vegetable patch and laden fruit trees, not to mention the deep orange-hued eggs from their healthy, happy, free-to-roam chickens. Her proud-as-punch father would always arrive home from policing their little township to a feast fit for a king. And as for her little sweet-toothed brother, he’d always had his hand in the biscuit tin her mum kept filled with homemade delicacies like crispy Anzacs or gooey jam drops. And Lilly Price’s lamingtons had been to die for. The Country Women’s Association ladies had always tried to lure the recipe from her, but her mum had remained tight-lipped, vowing it was a secret family technique, passed down through generations. If only Millie could get her hands on the recipe, but just like everything else, the fire had taken it.

Life back then had been filled with so much love, so much security. Just. So. Much. The fire, deliberately lit by a group of hoodlums, had changed all of that. Thankfully, some justice had been served, and the ringleaders, both sons of the well-known mobster Carlo Martino, had been caught. As for the others, being involved with the key players of the Kings Cross underground must have had its perks, because they received only a slap on the wrist – just another example of life being extremely unfair. Joey, the younger brother, got away with it. He’d been let off scot-free, in her opinion. The older brother, Luca, had served almost eight years in prison. He should have been given life, after taking three. It frustrated her that she knew so little about this man, or why he had done what he did. She didn’t even know what he looked like, aside from the court sketches she’d seen in the newspaper reports; he’d kept a jacket draped over his bowed head as he was hustled in and out of the courthouse. Why they had targeted her father, a dedicated police officer who lived hours away from their cartel, she hadn’t a damn clue, and neither did the investigating officers. They’d been unable to provide the answers she so desperately needed. To kill a man and his family over nothing; she’d never be able to let the anger of the injustice go. Not ever. She would be taking it to her grave.

Sucking in a breath, she shook off the distressing thoughts. She didn’t want to focus on the hurts and injustices of her past. Instead, she wanted to hold dear the memories of her family. That’s what brought her some kind of peace – the fragments of each of them that she held locked away in her jaded, shielded heart. Most fond memories were of billowing barbecues, and stirring bubbling pots, of chopping vegetables while sitting on a stool and licking delicious mixtures from beaters with her little brother. Her mother had lived in her apron, and food had been at the centre of their lives – it had been what had brought them together every day, laughing and chatting and sharing stories while they ate.

Her stomach growled. Thinking about all the yummy food they’d shared around the dining table made her think about the fact that she should really eat something now, before heading off to look for a job.

Glancing at the clock above the stove, she swore beneath her breath. Time was ticking. She needed to get a move on so she could put her best foot forwards, and hopefully return with a job at the end of the day, one that she might actually want to get out of bed for.

A glance in Felix’s direction made her smile from within. Curled up on one of the dining chairs, he was fast asleep. She took comfort in knowing she and Ebony made him feel welcome and at peace. Flicking the kettle on, she then grabbed her favourite mug from the draining rack to make her first strong cuppa for the day. Coffee was the only saving grace from her sleepless nights – the caffeine helped get her from one minute to the next, to the next, day after day, week after week. As she popped a heaped teaspoon of the instant dark-roasted grains into her cup while longing for a freshly brewed latte, it made her ponder running her own café or a quaint teashop where she could embrace the love of cooking her mother had instilled in her. It would be like a dream come true. But it was a pipe dream. Never could she afford such an endeavour. If life had taught her one thing, she rarely got what she longed for and she certainly wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

As she busied herself making a couple of pieces of toast with a thick slathering of Vegemite, and with the remnants of her nightmare still at the corners of her mind, her thoughts wandered to the places she’d travelled to many times before. Yes, her nightmare was a terrifying reminder of how close she’d come to dying that day, and it should make her grateful for every breath she got to take when her family’s lives had been so brutally stolen, but then the reality was that her real life was frequently a living nightmare too. After years of living in an abusive relationship – because, like Ebony had lovingly explained to her, she’d believed she deserved the mental, emotional and physical hurt just for being alive when her family was dead – it was hard to find daily gratitude in the mess of her existence. Even so, with Ebony’s help, step by step, she was doing everything within her power to make things right, so she could finally be at a stage in her life when she could honestly say she’d placed all the broken bits of herself somewhat back together. Then, maybe, possibly, by some miracle, she could find the elusive eternal happiness she longed to feel.

Ha, and pigs might fly too!

She had to learn to at least be fair on herself.

And brutally honest.

After going through such a traumatic event as a young girl, would she ever get her life back on track? Could anyone ever get back on track after what happened that night? She was starting to believe the answer was unequivocally no. Because no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t seem to shake the shadow of it. Bad things followed her. Shit happened. She fell over, time and time again. Dusting herself off was becoming exhausting. Fifteen years on, and she still couldn’t move past it. She couldn’t stop picturing her family being burnt alive, then what was left of them being buried beneath ten feet of earth while she sobbed at their graves.

She’d survived what the newspapers had stated was ‘un-survivable’, because of her brave, quick-thinking, nameless rescuer. But as grateful as she would forever be to whoever her saviour was, the guilt of surviving still sat like lead in her stomach, and all that talk about time healing wounds was absolute bullcrap. The grief never got easier, nor did the cavernous sensation in her heart. She’d just learnt to somehow, some way, live with it. Most of the time. Other times, she crumbled into a heap. And all the while, time marched on, and she just had to march along with it if she was going to survive living. No amount of counselling, or meditation, or praying to a god she wasn’t sure she believed in – what kind of god would take people in the cruel way he’d taken her family? – had ever freed her of it, nor would it ever. She couldn’t even set foot in a church now because the last time she had done so was to bid her family one final goodbye.

Anyway, enough overthinking everything, she thought with an almighty huff.

It was time for her to spend her day pounding the pavements with resume in hand, and from what she’d experienced the past week, also deal with getting knock-back after knock-back, only to arrive home to an empty apartment, too exhausted to eat anything with substance, before hitting the sack. On the plus side it was Friday night, which meant she could enjoy a drink or two, but no more. She knew all too well where hitting the bottle to numb herself got her. Waking up with a hangover from hell.

And that was no fun, no fun at all.

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