From USA Today bestselling Australian author Nicola Marsh comes a warm and winsome rural romance about second chances and belonging.
A prodigal daughter returns to Brockenridge…
Eleven years ago Ruby Aston left Brockenridge – and its small-town gossip – for the anonymity of the big city. Now, a grieving Ruby is forced to come home to the place she loathes. But it also means returning to someone she’s always regretted leaving behind…
Connor Delaney is determined to prove himself and not get by on his family name alone. To do this he needs to acquire the local roadhouse. He never anticipated the owner would be the same ‘bad girl’ who ditched him at the high school ball and was never heard from again.
For Alisha Nathieson, the grief of suddenly losing her dear friend and employer Clara Aston has forced her to examine her choice to stay and support her ageing parents. As she battles a growing need to explore her past, temptation wars with duty. And then there are her feelings for handsome chef Harry, who has secrets of his own…
In following their hearts, will this unlikely trio lose what they’ve craved all along?
This was categorically the best day of Ruby Aston’s life.
She’d thought getting a beaten-up Holden as a gift from her mum on her eighteenth birthday last week had been the best day but she’d been wrong. Attending Brockenridge High’s graduation ball tonight as Connor Delaney’s date easily topped the car. It was even better than that momentous day last month when he’d asked her to go with him.
Her, not Jane Jefferson, the most popular girl in school and the town’s resident blonde bombshell, who proudly displayed her D cups in the tightest T-shirts ever invented. Not Louise Poole, who had the perky cheerleader look down pat and made guys fawn over her with a bat of her mascaraed lashes. Not Becca Boag, who had honed the fresh, wholesome outback girl look that had the boys at school clamouring for a date.
Connor asking Ruby to the graduation ball rather than one of the popular girls had been significant—and the girls hadn’t let her forget it. They’d made her life hell for the last thirteen years, and the fact the most gorgeous guy in school—and the richest in the district—chose her over Jane had ensured they’d ramped up their bitchiness to unbearable.
Ruby pretended not to care, like she’d done forever. But every time one of the terrible trio called her a slag for living behind a roadhouse, or a slut like her mum, who ran the roadhouse and the motel attached to it, Ruby died a little inside. The cyber-bullying was the worst even though the school had tried to clamp down on that. As if that would stop the bitches; they’d opened fake accounts and continued their relentless campaign of hate.
Ruby couldn’t wait to get out of this dead-end country town halfway between Echuca and Swan Hill on the Victorian–New South Wales border and head to Melbourne to start her life. But first, she’d count down the hours until she saw the bullies’ expressions when she waltzed into the ball on Connor’s arm.
Thankfully, they hadn’t seen her just now in the op shop where she’d bought a faux fur stole and crystal drop earrings that resembled mini chandeliers to complement the vintage strapless gold dress she’d found for a bargain online. Those three could afford the best of everything, so spotting them rifling through second-hand stuff was plain weird, but Ruby hadn’t stuck around to find out what they were doing. No way would she let them ruin her big day.
As she left the shop, Natasha Trigg, who worked as a waitress at the roadhouse with Ruby’s mum, waved her over from outside the bakery. Ruby would’ve preferred to rush home and get ready but Tash seemed anxious. She placed her shopping bag in the front basket of her rusty bicycle and strolled across the main street.
‘Hey, Tash, what’s up?’
‘Could you give me a hand? Harry asked me to bring the scones back to the roadhouse for the CWA meeting but I didn’t realise he’d ordered so many and I can’t carry them all to the car.’
‘Sure.’ Given the way the Country Women’s Association members devoured the other delicacies Harry whipped up for their monthly meetings, Ruby thought they didn’t need scones, but Tash
He was one of few kids in school who didn’t treat Ruby differently because of where she lived, who didn’t tease her for working
Thankfully, Tash believed her. With a brisk salute, she said, ‘See you back at the Hole.’
Ruby nodded and returned to her bike, keen to ride home, take a shower and start prepping. She’d practised a few up-dos she’d seen online and had decided on a classy chignon that made her cheekbones and brown eyes pop.
However, as she neared her bike, she saw a cluster of people around it. Namely Jane, Louise, Becca and Nancy, the owner of the op shop, who appeared to be going through her shopping bag.
Ruby broke into a run. ‘Hey, that’s my stuff!’
She skidded to a stop when four pairs of eyes, three calculating and smug, one horrified, fixed on her.
Nancy held her hand up, a necklace hanging from the end of her index finger. ‘You didn’t pay for this, Ruby.’
A flicker of fear stabbed at Ruby’s defiance. ‘I’ve never seen that necklace in my life.’
Nancy’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed in disapproval. ‘Then what’s it doing in the bag with the stole and earrings you just bought?’
‘I don’t know,’ Ruby said, but as the corners of Jane’s glossed lips twitched and Becca sniggered, she did. That’s why they’d been in the op shop. They’d framed her. They’d waited until she’d left her bag in her bike basket before slipping the necklace in there. Cows.
‘Stealing is an offence,’ Nancy said, her tone frosty. ‘I should report you to Sergeant Brennan.’
‘But I didn’t take the necklace.’ Anger made Ruby shake.
Jane stepped forward, tut-tutting. ‘Lying’s as bad as stealing, Ruby.’ She grinned and gestured at the girls. ‘We all saw you take it.’
Ruby’s anger turned to fury as she watched them nod like wise sages.
‘The girls were in the shop, Ruby, so I have no reason to doubt what they saw.’ Sadness pinched Nancy’s mouth. ‘I’m disappointed in you. If you couldn’t afford the necklace you could’ve told me and we could’ve worked something out.’
Mortification flushed Ruby’s body and, to add to her humiliation, tears stung the back of her eyes. ‘I didn’t take the necklace. I swear.’
Nancy shook her head and turned away, the offending necklace still swinging on her finger, taunting Ruby. ‘Don’t ever set foot in my shop again, Ruby.’
‘Are you going to report her to the police?’ Becca piped up, her smile sickly sweet as she gave Ruby the finger behind Nancy’s back.
‘No, but I’ll be speaking to her mother,’ Nancy said, casting a final glower over her shoulder at Ruby before heading back into the shop and letting the door slam.
Ruby whirled back to the girls. ‘You bitches—’
‘Foul-mouthed as well as a thief,’ Jane said, wagging her finger. ‘I seriously think you’re not fit to be Connor’s date tonight. And once he hears about this …’
Fear wrapped around Ruby’s heart and squeezed. ‘You’d lie through your professionally whitened teeth because you’re too much of a troll for Connor to ask you to the ball?’
Malice glittered in Jane’s eyes. ‘We’re not just telling Connor. We’re telling the whole damn town what a scumbag you are. Including Anne Delaney, who won’t let her precious son anywhere near you once she hears this.’
‘Go to hell,’ Ruby said, needing to escape before the tears stinging her eyes spilled over. She pushed past the girls and straddled her bike.
‘Isn’t that where you’re headed now?’ Louise wrinkled her pert nose. ‘That place you call home is the closest thing to hell I’ve ever seen.’
‘Let her go, girls,’ Becca sneered, her high-pitched voice quivering with barely suppressed laughter. ‘She doesn’t have the guts to show up at the ball now, not when Connor wouldn’t be seen dead with a thieving slag.’
Ruby wanted to say so much. She wanted to let her hatred for the three girls who’d made her life a misery spill over in a raging torrent of vitriol. Instead, she pedalled away, ignoring their taunting laughter, tears streaming down her face.
Eleven years later
Ruby Aston drove through town, grief warring with guilt. Guilt that she hadn’t been back here once in the eleven years since she’d fled. Guilt that she’d been so self-centred she hadn’t realised how hard her mum was working and the toll that took on her health. Grief that she hadn’t spent more time with her mum and hadn’t seen her in the last few months before Clara had died of a heart attack.
Her mum had asked her to visit so many times but Ruby had always had an excuse: her uni hours were too long, her assignments too hard and, later, when she’d graduated with a degree in marketing, her work hours too manic. They’d caught up regularly in Melbourne, though, for shopping days, theatre premieres, spa dates. Ruby had spoiled her mum as often as she could once she’d started earning a decent wage, because Clara deserved it—she deserved the world on a platter and then some for slaving her entire life to provide Ruby with a good home, hearty meals and her university tuition. Clara had known why Ruby didn’t return to Brockenridge after she ran the night of the graduation ball and she didn’t push her to come home.
But Brockenridge had never felt like home to Ruby. Those bullying bitches had seen to that. The only place she’d ever felt safe back then was at The Watering Hole and having to return to the roadhouse now her mum was gone was bittersweet.
As she left town behind and drove along the road she’d traversed countless times on her bike, her gaze flicked to the once familiar landscape. Not much had changed. The paddocks had been a lot greener when she’d lived here and now appeared faded, alternating between olive, flaxen and russet, like a chequered testament to the scorching temperatures. Further afield lay golden plains leading to the wetlands near the mighty Murray River.
Sheep dotted paddocks with newly strung wire fences, with the occasional farmhouse in the distance. Towering eucalypts lined the road, their bark stringy and peeling, revealing smooth trunks beneath. A stark contrast to the magnificent red gums of Echuca, the town she’d always wished they’d lived in.
After driving the newly bitumened road fifteen kilometres out of town, Ruby’s heart rate sped up as she spied the familiar sign: bottle-green capitals against a beige background with a picture of a watering hole featuring native animals drinking at its fringe. Neon lit, day and night, the sign for The Watering Hole provided a beacon for weary travellers, mostly truckies who traversed this route to get to the towns along the river and beyond, knowing they’d be offered a welcome respite at the roadhouse.
She’d grown up surrounded by eclectic people from all over the country, the kind of folk who appreciated a hearty meal, friendly company and a comfortable bed. Weathered men who’d spent their lives transporting goods all over Australia, hardened women who’d rather live on the road than have a stable home. Some who’d fled abusive spouses, some running from their pasts. But they’d all had one thing in common: they’d adored Ruby and she’d adored them right back. The best education she’d ever had was sitting at the back table in the roadhouse, pretending to do her homework while letting the patrons’ conversations roll over her. She hadn’t eavesdropped per se, but the real-life experiences of the truckies were infinitely more interesting than solving algebra problems or writing history essays. Her mum had never tried to shelter her from the harder aspects of people’s lives and had encouraged her to converse with everyone, to be polite and respectful. Clara had expected the same from the roadhouse patrons. No one, not even the roughest truckie, had dared cross Clara.
Ruby smiled, remembering her mum’s ability to cut a man down to size with a glare, as she indicated and turned into the massive parking lot, large enough to house ten trucks, fifty cars and the odd bus.
Eleven years since she’d left. Eleven long years in which she’d achieved what she’d set out to do: escape the small-town mentality, prove her independence and become successful in her own right. Her freelance marketing career continued to grow and evolve as she built a solid reputation in a competitive field. She loved her work. Loved her apartment in Melbourne’s trendy inner-city suburb of Carlton. Loved her life.
Until the phone call a week ago from Alisha, the hostess at the Hole and her mum’s best friend, telling her the devastating news that Clara had died.
It had taken Ruby two days to finish with her current clients, another few to organise the funeral via a video call with a local parlour, and here she was, ready to lay the past to rest once and for all. She’d contemplated holding the funeral in Melbourne because