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Read an exclusive excerpt from Return to Rosalee Station by Mandy Magro

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Read an exclusive excerpt from Return to Rosalee Station by Mandy Magro

Bestselling Australian Author returns the world of her debut novel, Rosalee Station, with a new tragic and harrowing story of love and second chances, set deep in the heart of the Australian outback.

Can they find the path to forgiveness and healing, or will grief keep them apart forever?

After eight years of marriage, Sarah Walsh had thought she and Matt would be together forever. But when a fatal accident serves up the cruellest punishment any mother could face, their relationship falters. Sarah is helpless as Matt flies off the rails – she braves one last–ditch attempt to try and make him see they need to work together to get through the heartache. But will it be enough? And what about her – how does she go on alone?

Reeling from devastation and guilt, Matt gets the wakeup call he needs to save his marriage before it’s too late. But the way forward is littered with obstacles, and he can see it’s only by returning to the outback beauty and isolation of Rosalee Station that he has any chance to reclaim the man he once was. But will this separation end up costing him everything?

CHAPTER  1
Rosalee Station, Central Australia

Where it all began, eight years earlier

A month off turning twenty-six and Matthew Walsh felt as if his life was finally falling into place. The thunderous sound of the mustering chopper’s blades sliced through the silence – his dad was flying off to Mount Isa to do the banking and pick up some supplies. Why drive for ten hours when you could fly? It was one of the perks of a lucrative cattle station. Usually Matt would have gone with him, but nothing was going to drag him from his bed before she woke. He wanted to be the first thing she laid her dazzling, emerald-green eyes on. It was only quarter past seven, but the corrugated-iron roofing of the cottage creaked and groaned beneath the blazing outback sunshine. With the air-conditioner on the blink, the fan spinning madly above wasn’t doing much to ward off the heat – but without it, it was suffocating. The curtains flapped in the breeze and dappled sunlight flittered over the room like golden licks of flames – it was going to be another beautiful day in Central Australia. The temperatures would be scorching, and the relentless flies would drive most people batty, but he still loved every square inch of the treacherous, sun-baked, red-dirt country like only a true-blue cattleman could.
He smiled at the gorgeous woman cuddled into him, her arm draped over his chest. If he could, he’d stay in bed and make sweet, hungry love to her all day long, but there was work to be done. He’d been watching her sleep for the past half an hour; the peacefulness of her face and the soft, in–out of her breath was mesmerising. Never had he felt such intense, soul-deep love before. And as each day passed, as they spent more and more time in each other’s company, and planned their lives together, the love he felt for her only grew stronger and more encompassing. Matt just hoped nothing ever changed, that she would never fall out of love with him, hoped he never did anything to hurt her, even unintentionally, because this, right here, was what true love was all about. He wanted to make her happy, every single day from here on in, for the rest of her life.
Looking to where he’d hidden the dark blue sapphire engagement ring, in the third drawer under his clothes, he wondered if she was going to say yes. His heart raced like a bull at a gate just thinking about it, and nerves sent his stomach somersaulting. It would crush his entire world if she knocked him back – but he wasn’t about to dwell on that thought for too long. He’d already asked her parents for their permission, and they’d gladly agreed, so now it was all up to Sarah. Would she think this was too soon, too fast? Most would say five months wasn’t long enough to get to really know someone, but for Matt, everything between Sarah and him felt so right, so natural, as though they’d already been together before, in some previous lifetime, and he couldn’t imagine this life without her in it every day.
The bellow of cattle travelled through the open window and he turned to gaze out at the land he called home. Leaving here, and his family, was going to be bittersweet. But Sarah Clarke was worth it, and he could finally make his dream to live closer to the coast a reality. The offer they’d put in on the Tranquil Valley property had been accepted, now they had to wait for the usual twenty-eight days cooling-off period before they picked up the keys to their new home. He couldn’t wait to start their life together, and make plans for the family they’d spoken endlessly about. Two kids, maybe three, and he and Sarah would be living their dream. Remembering their many deep and meaningful conversations, he shook aside his concerns about asking her to marry him. It was the natural next step in a very committed relationship.
Glancing at the two upended wide-brimmed hats on his dresser, he felt a rush of contentment. He’d finally found his one in a million cowgirl – a sweet, sassy, tender-hearted woman who’d own his heart for an eternity. His family and his mates all loved her, and who wouldn’t with her fun, generous spirit? Inhaling her intoxicating scent, he thought about how the universe worked in such mysterious ways. After his run of bad luck in the love department, he had started to think the universe was conspiring against him, and he truly believed he was never going to meet the lady of his dreams. But here she was, right beside him. He found it hard to believe this goddess of a woman loved him as much as he loved her. Found it hard to believe they were about to buy their very own property together. Found it hard to believe he was finally leaving Rosalee Station. Things were moving fast and usually that would terrify him, but in this case he wouldn’t want it any other way now that he’d won her over. He would do anything for Sarah Clarke – he was willing to lay down his life for her, move mountains for her. He felt like the luckiest man alive to be able to wake up to her every single morning.
In awe of her beauty, both inside and out, he gently pulled her closer, loving the way he could feel her heartbeat against his own. Her dishevelled blonde curls lay scattered across the pillow. Peering down at her pink-painted toenails poking out of the bottom of the doona, he smiled. A true country girl at heart with determined grit that would outdo most men, she also had a feminine side that he wholeheartedly adored. She was the epitome of balance and perfection.
A four-wheel motorbike roared past the window, Slim and Liam’s laughter carrying with the noise of it. A pair of larrikin stockmen, always up for a laugh, Matt couldn’t help but chuckle with them. He wondered what adventures they were up to today – there was never a dull moment when in their company. Duke barked excitedly from the back porch, a doggy greeting as the bike roared past and quickly faded off into the distance. Thank goodness for the makeshift chook wire fencing closing off the latticework of the verandah, otherwise Duke would be running like billyo after them. With all the commotion, Sarah stirred, her arms tightening around him. His heart skipped a beat.
‘Good morning, handsome.’ Her bright green eyes looked sleepy as she smiled up at him.
‘Hey there, my beautiful.’ Her lips appeared even sweeter first thing in the morning and he craved to taste more of her. Leaning in, he placed a tender kiss against their softness, the simple touch firing his body to voracious life. ‘How’d you sleep?’
‘Like a log.’ Yawning, she stretched with the grace of a cat.
‘Me too … I reckon it might have been because of all that lovemaking tiring us out.’ He smiled wickedly, and she returned a sassy grin of her own.
‘Well, there’s much more where that came from, my handsome cowboy.’
‘Is that so?’ He trailed his fingers featherlike down her side, loving the way her skin covered in goosebumps and her nipples hardened against his chest.
‘Yup, you’ve just seen the start of it.’ Smiling ruefully, she threw back the thin cotton sheet and slipped from his reach. ‘But I’m afraid any more hanky panky will have to wait until tonight, seeing as your dad wants us to fix the pump at the top dam.’
‘Come back here, you sexy minx.’ He grabbed a good handful of her behind, playfully trying to force her back to him.
With a mischievous glint in her eyes she skilfully rolled away from him, onto her side, dragging the sheet with her. It left him completely naked, his longing for her evident. Her gaze travelled downwards and a coy smile curled her lips. Holy hell, she could make him hot for her within seconds. He ached to be at one with her, but he used every bit of his willpower to not pull her back to bed.
‘Make sure you save that thought, Miss Clarke.’ He wished he could have his wicked way with her, but at this time in the morning (which was considered a damn good sleep-in) there was work to be done, as usual. He climbed from the bed and sorted through the basket of clean clothes he was yet to fold, aware her eyes were on him the entire time. And he loved it.
Sarah came in beside him, pulling out some fresh clothes from the same basket. ‘You want some Vegemite on toast and a cuppa before we head off?’
‘Yeah, thanks, that sounds ripper.’ His jocks now on, Matt tugged his jeans up while watching Sarah slip on her red G-string and then a black lacy bra. How in the hell was he meant to keep his hands off her all day while knowing about her sexy underwear beneath her jeans and button-up paisley shirt?
Catching his eyes, she grinned and stopped buttoning, leaving her bra visible and her ample cleavage tempting. ‘You like what you see?’
Momentarily speechless, he smirked and nodded, the luscious curves of her womanly body doing things to him he couldn’t put into words right now.
‘Good, because for the record …’ She closed the distance between them. Reaching up on her tippy toes, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pressed her body into him. ‘I really like what I see too.’
With his hands around her waist, Matt lifted her from the floor. She wrapped her legs around him and their lips met, passionately, hungrily.
Reluctantly pulling back before he tore off what little clothes she’d put on, he captured her eyes with his and smiled. ‘Where have you been hiding all my life, you beautiful, sexy woman?’

 

Sarah devoured the view of Rosalee Station from the highest vantage point, Rocky Ridge. It was her and Matt’s favourite spot. With a showman’s pizzazz, the full moon hung high and bright among the squillions of stars. Over a million acres and twenty thousand head of cattle separating them from their closest neighbour, this was outback living at its finest.
It had been a long day of hard yakka, the top pump proving to be an absolute bastard to fix. Regardless, she loved working beside her hunk of manly man, watching how his muscles flexed beneath his shirt, and loving the way they would constantly catch sideways glances, their longing for each other knee-buckling. Freshly showered after her day of tough physical work, and pressed up against him, she floated way above cloud nine. Never in her wildest dreams would she have believed she’d find herself a man so worthy of loving, a man who reciprocated the profound love she had for him. It went beyond anything she’d ever imagined feeling when and if she was lucky enough to meet ‘the one’.
Their lips brushing against each other’s, Matt then graced her with a toe-curling smile, sending her insides tumbling even more before he tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear. She gave him a coy smile of her own as his fingers left a trail of heat wherever they touched. Contentment settled deep within her heart and soul. Everything had finally fallen into place. What had she done so right in her life to deserve all this? Although over the moon with happiness, there was a small part of her that was terrified it was all going to blow up in her face, that this deep love was too good to be true. She wished the tiny voice of pessimism in her head would shut the hell up. She was twenty-three, with her whole life ahead of her, and she couldn’t be happier with the possibility of spending it with this amazing man. She had to focus on that and ignore her fears. There’d been no red flags. No hints of any bad times to come. He was wowing her with everything he did – and especially with this. She’d never been on a stargazing date before. It was the most romantic setting in the world, and she couldn’t help smiling with delight at the dazzling beauty of it all.
Matt had spread a blanket on the bonnet of his LandCruiser and she cuddled into him, enjoying his warmth that protected her from the chilly night air. All around them, the flat, copper-red landscape of Rosalee Station stretched on into the never-never, with nothing manmade ruining the spellbinding view. It was Mother Nature at her finest. She heard the thump, thump of grey kangaroos approaching, the mob making a wide berth around the LandCruiser before hopping away. Beyond where she could see, dingoes roamed amongst the rocky cliffs and scribbly gums, their howls distant but distinct. It was an unnerving sound she’d grown accustomed to during her life as camp cook, but certainly not one she liked. The sky above them sparkled like a swathe of velvet encrusted with glimmering diamonds, and the blackness of the night surrounded them, making her feel as though she and Matt were the only ones to inhabit this magical outback world. He pointed out all the different stars and constellations, explaining the myths behind each one, and she was amazed by his knowledge. Could he get any better? Not only was he handsome as hell on the outside – his towering frame and muscular physique was drool worthy – but his mind was extremely attractive too. Matt Walsh was undeniably the entire package. And he was all hers. And she wasn’t letting him get away. Ever.
Snuggling closer still, she breathed in his fresh scent from his shower mingled with his spicy aftershave and a hint of leather. He smelt so good, earthy and manly, and she loved the way her body melted into his as they cuddled. It was as though they were made for each other – two peas from the same pod. With only moonlight to guide him, Matt pushed a ringlet of blonde hair off her forehead and kissed her gently on the lips, sending the already flickering flames dancing wildly in her soul. Then running his hand softly down her face, he looked deeply into her eyes. The intensity snagged her breath and made her feel giddy all at once.
‘I love you, Sarah Clarke, with all my heart and soul. And I can’t wait to begin the rest of our lives together in Malanda.’
She smiled dreamily back at him, her heart reaching for his. ‘I love you too, Matt. This is the life I’ve always dreamt of, and I’m sharing it with the most mind-blowing man in the world. I still can’t believe we’re together.’ She sucked in a shuddering breath, her emotions almost getting the better of her. ‘We were on different journeys in our lives not long ago, and now here we are, together, wrapped in each other’s arms, talking about our future. It’s absolute heaven!’
He smiled tenderly. ‘It surely is, my beautiful, sassy, sexy cowgirl.’
Sarah felt heat rise on her cheeks. ‘Wow, now that’s a compliment and a half, lucky me.’
A peaceful silence descended, and they gazed at the stars for a few more moments, lost in their thoughts. ‘Hey, how about a song?’ His voice was husky. ‘Any requests?’
But before she could answer he pulled gently out of her arms and slid off the bonnet, his boots stirring the dust as he landed. ‘Hmm . . . I reckon I’m in the mood for some Garth Brooks.’ She smiled like a lovesick teenager as she watched him nod and then flick through his CD case.
‘You know how much I love old Garthy boy, and I’ve got the perfect tune in mind.’ Holding a CD up and shaking it, he then leant into the cab to put it in the CD player, skipping forward a few songs.
‘To Make You Feel My Love’ finally played.
‘Oh my god, I freaking love this song!’ Sarah called out into the night as the first bars rang out softly.
The driver’s door squeaked as Matt closed it. ‘Good, because it reminds me of you every time I listen to it.’
A bubble of bliss erupted in her heart. ‘Aw, that’s so sweet.’ She sang along to herself as she waited for him to join her back on the bonnet.
But when he came back to her, he didn’t climb up but instead held out his hand. ‘Can I have this dance, my beautiful princess?’
Sarah didn’t think the night could get any more romantic, but it just had. ‘Yes, you may, my spunky cowboy,’ she replied with a gentle smile.
Sliding down off the bonnet and into his irresistibly strong arms, she rested her head on his chest, lost in happiness as she listened to his heartbeat. Matt took the lead and waltzed her gently around, one hand cupping the curve of her back while the other tenderly held her hand. And without another word needed, they danced, their boots sliding across the red earth beneath them and the moon spilling its silvery light across their faces.
I have found the love of my life, Sarah thought.
Above them, millions of stars shone down from the beautiful country sky, creating a picture-perfect romantic atmosphere. The country love song was nearing its end when Matt stopped dancing. Their eyes met, and then held. Something unfathomable and so deeply intimate passed between them. Sarah’s heart fluttered and then flew. Leaning in, he feathered a kiss, so soft and gentle, she felt as if she were floating on a cloud. The fire between them flamed even brighter, intensified, and then burst into a plethora of sparks throughout her. Taking her by the hand, he cleared his throat as he dropped to one knee. No. He wasn’t. Couldn’t be. No man would commit like this so quickly. Was she imagining it? He blinked as if warding off tears. This was oh so beautifully real. Time screeched to a halt. Her heart melted and then welled as she blinked back hot tears of her own. He pulled a little black box from his top pocket and opened it, revealing the most beautiful engagement ring she’d ever seen, nestled amongst red velvet. She stared at it, her eyes wide and her mouth open, trying to make sense of what was happening. This had to be a dream, and if it was, she never wanted to wake up. She almost pinched herself to confirm it wasn’t.
‘You okay, baby?’ Matt’s voice was a whisper.
She nodded, unable to speak.
He gave her hand a tender, loving squeeze.
Beneath the silvery moonlight, the sapphire sparkled like one of the glimmering stars in the velvet black sky. It was her favourite gemstone, and he knew that. Her hands fluttered to her chest. Her breath whooshed out in a sweet sigh. She stood, speechless, her whole body tingling with unadulterated happiness.
Matt graced her with a trembling smile. ‘Sarah Clarke, I’ve loved you from the very first moment our eyes met. And I reckon, with how deep my feelings run for you, maybe even before that. You’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a woman, and more. I want to kiss you goodnight every single night, and the first thing I want to see every morning is your beautiful, smiling face. I want my heart to be your shelter, and my arms to be your home. I want you to be the mother of my children. I want to grow old with you, and sit on rocking chairs on our back verandah and reminisce about our lives. So, Sarah, will you make me the happiest man on this earth and marry me?’
Sarah found it hard to process the perfection of the magical moment, every single word hitting her heart. Tears of pure joy rolled down her cheeks. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, of course I’ll marry you, you beautiful man.’
‘Oh thank god for that.’ He breathed a sigh of relief like he’d been holding his breath for an eternity. ‘With how pale you went, I was worried you were going to say no.’
She smiled, his nervousness endearing. ‘Now why would I go and do something stupid like that?’
He grinned waywardly. ‘Stranger things have happened.’ Taking her hand, he slid the ring on her finger. Looking up at her, he smiled like a man who had just won the lottery.
She launched herself at him, dropping to her knees and wrapping her arms around his neck. ‘You have made me the happiest and luckiest girl alive. I love you so much, Matt.’
‘Love you too, baby. There’ll be no getting rid of me now.’
‘Oh trust me, I’m not ever going to be getting rid of you. You’re mine forever and ever.’
‘Me and you, forever and always.’ His strong hands settled on her back as their lips met.
Their kiss held so many promises and so much love she thought her heart was going to burst. Then he pulled her even closer still. His big, strong arms wrapped tightly around her, possessively, tenderly. She wanted to stay like this forever, in his arms, and now, she never had to live a day without him by her side. She clung to him and rested her head against his chest, listening to his pounding heart. The heart that belonged to her.

 

CHAPTER 2
Rosalee Station, Central Australia

Seven years later

It was a brand new year, a fresh start to achieve the resolutions she hadn’t last year. Like starting yoga, and doing a few cooking classes, maybe Thai and Japanese, or even German – Sarah loved anything to do with food. It was the way she relaxed and wound down after splitting her time between motherhood, being a good wife, and the farm – not an easy juggling act, but she did it, and enjoyed every tiring, backbreaking second of it. She and Matt had a goal in mind – to do the hard yards for another couple of years, and then sell up to hopefully make a profit. As much as she loved living in Malanda, where the climate was cool enough to have a fireplace, and the feed for their cattle was endless, she missed being close to her friends and family in Mareeba, especially now Eve was old enough to form bonds and needed company. She thanked the powers that be for having a man like Matthew Walsh in her life – he lived by his motto that as long as they all stuck together, and he had his bucking bulls to breed and train, he didn’t care where they lived.
Humming to herself, she packed the last of the glasses from the top rack of the dishwasher away in the cupboard. Sunlight poured through the kitchen’s bay window, igniting the sun catcher into an array of colours, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon filled the room. As usual, the homestead was a hive of activity, and Sarah loved the feeling of wholesomeness she always had when they found the time to visit her in-laws. She glanced outside. The sky was an eggshell blue without a cloud in sight, and ripples of heat blurred the silhouettes of the horses off in the distance. The land seemed to stretch on forever, with little speckles of green sprouting amongst the endless brown thanks to the arrival of the wet season. Even so, today was faultless. It was the right weather to spend a few hours out on horseback, for some time to herself, away from mummy duties while Matt took Eve fishing. Not that she would ever complain about the time she spent with her daughter. Being a mum was the ultimate gift. It was just that, sometimes, it was nice to relax in silence. She felt a twinge of guilt even thinking so, but as her mum had assured her, the longing for alone time came with the territory of being a mother.
The ABC radio played softly in the background, the announcer proclaiming that it was a perfect first day of the year, albeit sweltering hot. Sarah had to agree. Despite the eyelash-adhesive flies, the red dust that got into places it shouldn’t, and the unrelenting heat that made you sweat before you’d even had time to dry off from a shower, this was her favourite time of the year to visit Rosalee Station. Although it was New Year’s Day, the festive vibe of Christmas still lingered in the Walsh homestead. With the mustering season done and dusted early, and the guys she’d grown over the years to regard as brothers still here for another week before chuffing off to their out-of-season jobs, they all had time to relax and cherish the little things. And it was the little things that meant so much to her. Sarah smiled, feeling as though life couldn’t get much better.
Judy bustled in and dunked her hands into the soapy water in the sink. ‘It’s a beautiful day in paradise, isn’t it?’ Her smile was wide and warm as she dried them on a tea towel.
‘It sure is.’ Sarah matched her smile.
‘I hope the boys get here soon. I don’t want breakfast to get cold.’
‘I don’t reckon they’ll be too far away, Judy. Their bellies would be growling by now.’
Judy nodded in agreement as she went over to the stove.
While thinking about where she would venture to in the saddle, Sarah busied herself lining up nine dinner plates. Bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, hash browns – her stomach ached with the thought of the feast Judy was preparing. She’d learnt that copious amounts of food was a given here. A sudden gush of hot air filled the room and she turned to see her hunky, spunky husband walking through the back door of the homestead. She graced him with a tender smile and Matt grinned at her from beneath his wide-brimmed hat, his brown eyes mischievous, as always, before he took his hat off and hung it on a hook, revealing his freshly clipped brown hair. Her heart swelled at the sight of him, covered in red dust from head to toe. There was something so raw and primal about a man of the land. And besides that, what wasn’t there to love about her good-hearted, hard-working cowboy? Even now, after seven years together, he still made her heart flutter and her knees weak.
‘Daddy!’ Dropping her crayon next to her drawing, six-year-old Eve Walsh leapt from her seat and into Matt’s arms, her chaotic blonde curls framing her petite features. In looks, she was most certainly her mother’s daughter, but in spirit, she was Daddy’s little girl.
Cuddling her tightly, Matt dusted her cheeks with kisses. ‘Morning, sweetheart, did the tooth fairy come last night?’
‘She sure did.’ Her smile widened, revealing the new gap at the front. ‘And she gave me a whole ten dollars.’
‘Wow. You’re a mighty rich six-year-old. I might have to ask you for a loan.’
Eve tipped her head to the side. ‘What’s a loan?’
Matt chuckled. ‘Not something you need to know about just yet.’
‘Okay then.’ Eve crumpled her nose up. ‘You really stink, Daddy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, which matched the colour and intensity of his daughter’s. ‘Don’t beat around the bush, will you, Eve?’ He smiled cheekily at Sarah over Eve’s shoulder. ‘You’re becoming more and more like your mother every day.’
‘Oi.’ Sarah tossed the tea towel from her shoulder in his direction. ‘I beg to differ.’
Matt successfully avoided it by ducking to the side. Eve giggled as she wriggled free of his arms and hopped back up to the table to continue drawing.
‘What are you making, sweetheart?’ Matt peered over Eve’s shoulder.
Eve pointed to three stick figures holding hands. My Family was written above it. ‘This is me, you and Mummy.’ She smiled up at him. ‘And I’m about to draw Duke. Do you like it?’
‘Nope … I love it.’
Eve grinned a smile that would outshine the sun.
Padding towards Matt, Sarah gave him a quick peck on the lips. Catching a whiff of something disgusting, she swiped at the air. ‘Good god, you really do stink.’ She smiled. ‘Reminds me of the day we wrestled each other in that putrid mud … it took me days to get the smell out of my hair.’
‘Ah, sweet memories … we were young lovers back then.’ He smiled charmingly. ‘And FYI, before you both hound me, I’m going to run through the dip before brekkie, which by contrast smells divine, Mum.’ He licked his lips. ‘I’m bloody starving.’
‘You’ve got five minutes before it’s on the table, love,’ Judy Walsh called from where she was dealing with two frypans and a pot on the AGA stove. She turned and wiped her hands on her bright yellow apron. ‘Is your father far away?’
‘Nope, he was right behind me. He just stopped to give Duke and Stella a drink on the porch. The poor buggers needed one after jumping around like frogs in socks.’ He chuckled and shook his head. ‘You can’t half tell Duke’s glad to be here.’
Judy picked up the bowl of eggs she, Sarah and Eve had collected from the chook pen less than an hour ago. ‘Good, because the rest of the crew will be here any minute, and I don’t want breakfast going cold.’
Setting the table, Sarah’s heart sank as she thought about the fact one of the chairs would be empty this year. It had been a blow, getting the news that Stumpy, Rosalee Station’s seasonal chopper musterer for the past ten years, had died in a helicopter accident five months ago. Mustering by air was a dangerous job, and sadly, it had taken a few of their friends over the years. It came with the territory but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. Tears stinging her eyes, she quickly blinked them away, sucked in a breath and put a smile on her face. Stumpy wouldn’t want her mourning; he’d want her, and everyone else, to celebrate his fifty-eight years of life. Which is exactly what they’d done at his wake. Getting through his funeral had been tough, but the wake had been one hell of a send-off, leaving everyone with hangovers that had taken them all a few days to get over.
The back door creaked open again and Steve walked in, looking as dusty and dirty as his son. Duke and Stella skidded in at his side, their tails wagging like the clappers. Duke’s nose was as red as the mud on both the men – he’d obviously been digging. Sarah smiled at her long-time furry mate, the grey on his muzzle showing his thirteen years. Stella, Judy’s dog, was half his age, but Duke kept up with her in the rascally sense. After Judy told them to get on their beds, both dogs curled up in the corner on their rugs.
With a weary sigh, Steve hung his hat on the hook beside Matt’s. ‘Well that took way longer than expected.’
Matt came back in, smelling one hundred percent better than before. ‘Tell me about it, old fella. That bloody waterline was clogged up to the eyeballs. No wonder there was hardly any water getting through to the troughs.’
‘Yeah, it sure was.’ Steve gave Matt a pat on the shoulder. ‘Thanks for helping out. You come here for a holiday and I’ve had you working almost every day.’
‘No worries, Dad, I like helping out when I’m here. And with the drunken larrikin state the boys were in last night when Sarah and I made our stealth exit from the workers’ cottage, I’d safely say they would’ve needed their beauty sleep this morning.’
Steve chuckled and shook his head. ‘Yeah, I’d say so, knowing that lot. They’ll never learn.’
Matt was fresh and clean but the stench on Steve’s clothes filled the kitchen, and Sarah stepped away from him to find some fresh air. Retrieving the tea towel from the floor and then tucking her unruly curls behind her ears, she went back to drying up the few containers left in the dishwasher – why in the heck they never dried in a machine hot enough to boil an egg was beyond her. ‘Would you like me to make the toast after this, Judy?’
‘Yes please, Sarah. The bread is in the freezer.’ She turned to her husband and wrinkled her nose. ‘You having a shower before brekkie, too, then, love?’ Judy’s tone was more telling than questioning.
Steve chuckled. ‘I’m gathering that’s an order, my darling wife?’
‘You’re gathering right.’ With a cheeky smile, Judy then focused on cracking eggs into a frypan almost big enough for paella. ‘Everyone still like their bum nuts over-easy?’
‘Yeah, thanks,’ was the collective reply.
Thirty minutes later, nine of them were sat at the table, bellies full and plates basically licked clean. Conversation flowed freely, as did the pot of coffee, the laughter loud and contagious. Her cuppa cradled in her hands and sitting beside Matt’s sister, Georgia, Sarah gazed across the dining table at the two people who meant more to her than life itself. She was so grateful for the little family God had blessed her with. Giggling, Eve pulled a face at her dad, and Matt returned the gesture with one that made Sarah’s heart melt. Eve was certainly Daddy’s little girl. Look out anybody that ever hurt her, and Lord help her very first boyfriend.
‘So where did you two sneak off to last night?’ Slim said as he leant back in his chair, his belt undone and his hands folded behind his head. ‘One minute you were on the dance floor, boogying like there was no tomorrow like the good old days, and next minute you were both gone.’
Sarah stifled a laugh as she spotted his belly button poking out from beneath his shirt – some things never changed. ‘I was buggered … can’t keep up with you mob anymore.’
‘Oh, don’t tell me you’ve gone soft in your old age, Sarah?’ Liam grinned, his Irish accent pronounced, and then graced her with a wink.
‘Nope, not soft at all … it’s called growing up,’ Sarah shot back playfully, enjoying the banter.
‘I’m too young at heart to ever grow up. I’m a party animal from way back.’ Liam smothered a yawn.
Patrick jumped into the conversation, his bloodshot eyes in stiff competition with the red shirt he was wearing. ‘Yeah, look at you go, bro.’
‘Hey don’t you start, Patrick …’ Liam looked at his brother. ‘I outlasted you by a long shot.’
‘Oh no, you didn’t.’ Patrick said it like he was from the Bronx.
Liam pointed accusingly at him. ‘If my memory serves me right, you were facedown in the lounge chair by eleven-thirty, didn’t even make the countdown.’
‘Ah, well … I was looking for spare change down the side of it.’
‘Oh, pull the other leg, Pat,’ Slim said, and chuckled.
Georgia yawned noisily beside Patrick, her red-rimmed eyes not much better than his. ‘I’m with Sarah, it’s about time we grew up, huzzbuzz.’
‘Never.’ Patrick shot her a playful look. ‘I will disown you as my wife if I ever hear you say that again.’
Georgia gave him a firm slap and Patrick winced.
Liam leant forward, his forearms resting on the table. ‘So what’s on the cards today, Walshee?’
‘I’m taking Eve fishing, you wanna join?’
‘Yay, I love fishing!’ Eve squealed, wiggling in her seat.
Liam shook his head. ‘Oh, thanks, but no thanks … this Irishman needs his beauty sleep.’
‘You boring old fart,’ Matt said with a devilish grin, scarcely ducking away from a poke in the ribs with Liam’s fork.
‘How ’bout you, Patrick?’
‘Count me out. The missus has got me under the thumb today. Apparently two months in our new place is long enough to have fitted the toilet-roll holders – but I beg to differ.’ He shot Georgia a sideways glance, succumbing to another firm slap from his wife.
‘How ’bout you, Slim? Got any plans for the day?’
‘Thought you’d never ask.’ Slim grinned. ‘I’d love to join you … once this food goes down.’ He sat up, fumbling with the top button of his jeans as he turned his attention to his left. ‘That’s if you don’t mind, Eve?’
‘I’d love you to come along, Uncle Slim. You’re the bestest fun.’
Slim smiled from the heart. ‘Aw, thanks, darling.’
‘Well, I’ve got to get back to it. No rest for the wicked, as they say.’ Steve stood, his chair scraping as he pushed it out.
‘What have you got to do, Dad? I thought we were all supposed to be taking it easy,’ Georgia said as they all began gathering plates and cutlery from the table.
‘Oh, this and that,’ Steve muttered, carrying a couple of mugs to the sink.
‘You know your father, Georgia, got bloody ants in his pants. He almost sent me round the bend when we were caravanning. I couldn’t get the bugger to sit still for longer than a couple of hours.’
Georgia balanced a pile of plates in her hands. ‘I don’t know how you did it, Mum.’
‘Hey, this old bloke has feelings you know.’ Steve smiled as Judy tucked her chair back into the table.
Sarah helped Eve down from her chair. Grabbing a wet wipe from the packet she always had nearby, she cleaned her daughter’s greasy hands. ‘I think you should go and brush your teeth and have a trip to the loo before you and Dad head off.’
‘Okay, Mummy.’
‘Good girl.’ Sarah smiled proudly, always amazed by Eve’s willingness to do as she was told. She watched Eve dash off down the hallway, with Duke hot on her heels. Eve’s laughter carried with them into the bathroom. The two had been inseparable since the day Sarah had come home from the hospital with Eve bundled in her arms, Duke looking extremely protective of his tiny friend.
‘Thanks for breakfast, Judy,’ Liam said, rubbing his stomach. ‘I think I need to go and sleep it off now. I feel like a beached whale.’
‘Me too,’ Patrick added before placing a kiss on his mum-in-law’s cheek. ‘You’re the best cook ever.’
Georgia poked him in the ribs. ‘Hey, I thought I was the best cook ever.’
Patrick jumped back, rubbing his side. ‘Will you stop bashing me up, Mrs McDonald.’
‘Never,’ Georgia said with a wicked grin. She started rinsing dishes in the sink, splashing water up the window, before stacking them into the dishwasher.
Judy wiped the droplets of water away with a cloth. ‘You go, love, too many hands make for more work.’
‘You sure, Mum?’
‘Of course.’ Judy plucked the plate from her daughter’s hands, and being a creature of habit re-rinsed it. ‘I like to be the Queen of my kitchen, as you all know very well.’ She waved her hands in the air, smiling. ‘So out you all go, be gone with you.’
Slim plonked a serving plate down on the sink then plucked the last piece of bacon from it and shoved it in his mouth. ‘You sure, Mrs W?’ he mumbled through the mouthful.
‘Sure I’m sure. Go and get ready for your fishing trip.’

Amidst the usual chaos, Sarah started to wipe down the tomato sauce bottle and the table around it. Eve had tried pouring it but when she gave it a hit, the sauce had exploded over her plate, onto the table and into a pool on her fried egg.
Matt’s arms circled around Sarah’s waist as he tugged her into the hallway, away from prying eyes and ears. She enjoyed the feeling of his body pressing up against her. ‘Hey there, sexy.’ His voice was hushed and husky, making her toes curl.
‘Hey there, handsome,’ she purred back.
‘You going my way?’ He nibbled on her earlobe, sending goosebumps skating over her skin.
‘Maybe.’ She grinned naughtily over her shoulder. ‘Depends what you’re offering.’
‘That’s for me to know and you to find out,’ he whispered in her ear.
She spun to face him and they enjoyed a fleeting kiss, their lips barely touching before Georgia walked out and told them to get a room, and everyone else mumbled in agreement.
‘Love you, my beautiful,’ Matt said, loud and proud.
‘Love you too.’ Sarah smiled.
Eve skidded in beside them, as did Duke, both of them breathless. ‘Ready, Daddy.’ She pulled on her favourite pink cap and jiggled excitedly on the spot.
Unwrapping her arms from around Matt’s shoulders, Sarah knelt and took Eve’s hands in hers, marvelling, as always, at how tiny and fragile they were – such a contrast to her daughter’s fierce, effervescent nature. ‘Now, you make sure you’re a good girl for Daddy today, and don’t go in the dam without someone going in there with you, okay?’
‘I promise I won’t, Mummy.’
‘Cross your heart?’
Eve nodded as she did the movements. ‘Cross my heart.’ And then she clutched the half-moon pendant on the gold chain around her neck, reaching out to touch the other half of it hanging from Sarah’s necklace. ‘Heart to heart, Mummy, I promise I’ll be a good girl.’
Sarah’s heart filled with so much love she thought she might burst. She clutched the pendant Eve had given her for Christmas. ‘You know what?’
Eve shook her head. ‘No.’
‘You’re the most beautiful soul I have ever met.’
‘What’s a soul, Mummy?’
‘Never mind, I should have said you’re the most beautiful girl.’
‘Ahhh, then why didn’t you just say that, Mummy? You silly billy.’
‘Don’t worry, Sarah. I got this.’ Matt placed his hand on Sarah’s back and patted it reassuringly. ‘I’ve been her dad for a while, so I kinda know how to take care of her.’ He flashed her a playful grin. ‘She’ll come home safe and sound, although probably smelling like fish and mighty grubby.’
Sarah nodded, grinning. ‘I know she will.’ She pushed to standing and grimaced. ‘Sorry for sounding like I don’t trust you with her; mother’s instinct, can’t help myself.’
‘Relax and enjoy your day. You deserve it.’ Matt brushed a kiss over her cheek.
‘I will, and I’ll probably be back from my ride before you two, so I’ll be waiting for you,’ Sarah said.
‘Come on, sweetheart.’ Matt took Eve by the hand. ‘Let’s go catch us some fish for dinner.’
Eve punched the air. ‘Yeah!’
Sarah felt a little piece of herself walking away with Matt, and even though she knew she was worrying about nothing, she couldn’t help but feel like she should be going with them, just to keep an eye on things. She shook the feeling off, chastising herself for being so overprotective, but at the same time she couldn’t help herself. ‘Please make sure she puts her seatbelt on, Matt.’
Matt turned and graced her with one of his trademark knee-buckling smiles. ‘Stop worrying, will you? I got this.’
She smiled. ‘Okay, sorry.’
Just before they stepped outside, Eve turned and blew Sarah a kiss. Like they always did, Sarah caught it and held it to her heart, smiling from the inside out as she did the same and Eve caught it from the air, holding it to her chest and smiling.
Sarah’s heart melted – a mother’s love was infinite.

 

CHAPTER  3
Tranquil Valley, Malanda, Far North Queensland

Twelve months later

In a split second, her life had been turned upside down and inside out, and just like the previous one, it was a New Year’s Day like no other. Tumbling through a deep dark abyss, with a hazy nightmare gripping her tightly, Sarah woke with a start. Her hand instantly went to the half-moon pendant lying against her chest. The room was dark, but the tiny sliver of light peeking between the blackout curtains alerted her to the fact the day she’d feared had arrived. Dread rose like floodwaters in her chest. A whimper escaped her. Sobs fought to surface, but she dug deep and fought off the wave of emotion – she’d become good at doing so these past twelve months. There would be plenty of time for crying when she got there, when she faced the harsh reality head on. For now, she wanted to save her strength, knowing that exhaustion was a part of her daily life. She was holding on to what was left of her world, but only barely, gripping whatever she could to keep it together for yet another day – not thinking past the next twenty-four hours. That’s how she’d gone on this long, barely keeping their lives together, by living in every pain-filled moment because that’s just what she had to do.
Rolling on her side and with the lingering images of the nightmare still upsetting her, she struggled to catch her breath. She couldn’t put her finger on the details of her nightmare, but she would have preferred going through the horror of her bad dream all over again rather than having to face her reality today. She shivered, the sheet in a bundle at her feet and the doona nowhere in sight. With the fitful sleep she’d had, she gathered it would be on the floor at the foot of the bed. It was summer in the tropics, but typical of Malanda, the temperatures were well below what they were in her hometown of Mareeba.
Rolling over, she reached across the king-size bed, longing to find some comfort in the man she loved with every inch of her being. But she was not shocked to discover that Matt wasn’t there. What had she expected? She punched his pillow, feeling cheated, unloved, uncared for. It was rare to find him here anymore, the couch was more his thing these days. Anything to not be near her, to not look in her eyes, to not see the hurt in them, which he blamed himself for. Sarah had to admit that in her times of utter despair, she sometimes silently blamed him for it too. And although she denied she did in every one of their arguments, she knew he sensed it – their connection was too strong for him not to. She wished she could control the unwanted feelings that clung to her deepest, darkest self … but she was only human. Both of them were holding on to what was left of their marriage, but was it because they were too scared to say goodbye? Had the letter she’d left for him on the table two days ago achieved anything? She wasn’t sure, because he hadn’t even mentioned it to her. For all she knew he could have screwed it up and thrown it in the bin.
Closing her eyes, she tried not to let her thoughts get away from her, but as usual, it was a fruitless battle. She felt as if she were living with a ghost. The conversations and cuddles she and Matt had once shared, their laughter and love, the hopes and dreams they’d been striving to make their reality, were now all things of the past. And yet she’d foolishly thought, given the gravity of the day, he may have somehow pushed his demons aside and tried to find comfort in her, and they could have found solace in one another. It was exactly twelve months since they’d lost their darling Eve. Her daughter’s six years of life were all she had to remember her by. But Matt had another love now, one that wasn’t doing him, or them, any favours. If only she could do something to snap him out of it, to help him through it, to rid him of his dependence on the booze to numb his anguish. As much as she wished she could be his rock, the pillar to hold him up, she had to fend off her own battles and deep-seated grief. It would be so much easier if he were right there beside her, if they could be there for one another, then the pain wouldn’t be so raw, so suffocating. But it was as if they were strangers sharing the same house, with nothing to say to each other. They existed, that was all. Even though he’d survived the accident, she’d lost him, too, on that fateful day. The very thought tore her already broken heart to shreds.
Her mobile phone vibrating from the bedside table startled her. She picked it up and peered at the caller ID while also noticing a text message from her best mate, Lily. She’d read it in a minute. She sucked in a breath and tried to steady what she knew would be a trembling voice. ‘Hey, Mum.’

 

Return to Rosalee Station will be available in store and online from October 22nd 2018.

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