Bestselling Australian romance author Mandy Magro tells a heartwarming story of homecoming and love against all the odds …
Would you give up everything for love?
Samantha Evans may have been born and bred in the country, but over the years she has adapted to, and loves, her big-city life in London. She’s reached heights of success in her business that she’d never dreamed of achieving back in Australia. When her best friend’s wedding forces her to return to her beautiful Queensland hometown of Gum Tree Gully, fate reminds Sammie about everything, and everyone, she left behind, including her childhood sweetheart, Connor Stone. Now a handsome and kind cattle farmer, he harbours a tragic secret he can’t share with anyone. That is, until Sammie comes back to town.
Samantha soon learns her country blood runs much deeper than she allowed herself to believe, so too do the intense feelings she’s carried for Connor all these years. But her life is overseas now, while his is in Gum Tree Gully. Living on opposite sides of the world, with oceans and long-held secrets standing between them, is there any hope for their love to prevail?
Gum Tree Gully, North Queensland, Australia
Midnight had come and gone. The new day was closing in. Way too quickly. Sitting on the lid of Connor Gunn’s esky, Samantha Evans felt excitement rush through her as she thought about opening Gum Tree Gully’s very first health-food shop and juice bar with her mum in just a month’s time.
Sejuiced. That was the business name they’d registered and been approved to use. They’d been dreaming about it for years, and thanks to her dad taking on more shifts at the mine to fund the project, it was going to become their reality. Plan was, she and her mum were going to make a killing so her dad could eventually retire. Imagining how wonderful it was going to be to have her role model, hero and best mate home permanently, instead of away two weeks out of every month like he had been for most of her life, she threw back the last of her cheap bubbly, then plonked the empty bottle on the grass beside her. She was determined to work super hard and make her parents proud. This weekend was going to be her last hurrah of adolescent freedom. Monday would be her first day of becoming a responsible adult.
Looking to the star-studded sky, she wondered where her boyfriend had disappeared to. Maybe he’d crashed in his swag; it felt like hours since he’d said he was ducking off for a ciggie. She wished he’d give up. Even though it bugged the heck out of him, she kept on telling him smoking would kill him. Besides that, it stank and made his breath smell, and when she kissed him she could taste it. But telling Angus Gunn to do anything he didn’t want to do was like pulling teeth. Wilfulness was an inherent trait of the Gunn bloodline, as was the country blood that ran through his veins. A fourth-generation stockman, he was still in his teens but already knew his calling. Samantha loved a man in jeans, boots and an Akubra, and Angus wore each one like they were custom made for him, with the swagger of a guy who lived in the saddle too. It was one of the many things that had attracted her to him in the first place, almost three years ago.
Squeezing her eyes closed, she sighed. If only they could move past the fact that she wasn’t going to jump into bed with him until they were married, maybe they could happily move forward. He just seemed so preoccupied with sex, it was making her more and more uncomfortable – to the point where she was pulling back a little. And that was causing arguments. Heated ones that left her feeling empty and upset. Just thinking about it all now, about how his insistence on taking her virginity made her feel so pressured, the sheer emotional weight of it threatened to pop her happy bubble. If only Angus could be a little kinder, a little more considerate and a lot more selfless, like his twin brother Connor was. Like her father was. Then he’d come very close to being the whole package. Argh, a girl couldn’t have everything though … could she? There’d always be something to cause waves and rifts when it came to a relationship. It was how two people dealt with such instances that made all the difference. Or at least that’s what her wonderful mum had taught her.
She rolled her eyes at her ability to overthink everything lately – becoming a responsible adult was already exhausting. She didn’t want to get trapped in that same old oppressive train of thought. Not tonight. So, rising to her feet, she took a moment to adjust to the slightly spinning earth before walking back towards her lifelong friends. Gum Tree Gully High’s graduation afterparty had been a party to end all parties. The one they’d all been waiting for. Talking about since mid-year. Planning for since August. And she wanted to immerse herself back into the electric energy of it. Longneck bottles of beer had been clinked together countless times. The tower of empty rum and cola cans was growing. Their mobile phones had captured all the memorable moments so far. There had been many. And there’d be more to come. She was sure of it.
Raucous laughter echoing across the paddock caught her attention, as did the distant low of cattle and whinny of horses. Nearing where Connor, Shea and Jack were dancing their booties off, she chuckled as a bunch of larrikins raced past her, all five of them stark naked, their hands covering their dangly bits and the silvery moonlight igniting their lily-white butts. Man, how she wished she could stay within this night forever. Smiling to herself, she moseyed on, a little unsteady on her feet, but upwards and onwards all the same. Cheery faces shimmered and disappeared in the glow of the bonfires dotted around the paddock, and the bass of the subwoofers perched on the tray of Connor’s LandCruiser sent Garth Brooks’ ‘Ain’t Going Down (’Til the Sun Comes Up)’ echoing through the cool night air, and rhythmic vibrations through the ground beneath her bare feet. Where her boots had ended up, she had no idea. Most likely in the same place as her hat. Pfft. She’d find everything in the morning, when she crawled from her swag to make her way home. That was if she ever got to sleep in the first place.
The song changed to the unmistakable voice of an Aussie legend. Skipping in beside her greatest friend in the whole wide world, Shea Davis, Samantha sang the lyrics to ‘Rising Sun’ by Cold Chisel at the top of her lungs. Grinning, Shea tossed an arm over her shoulder, while her other remained wrapped around her date, Jack Farley. The tall, lanky red-headed larrikin couldn’t stop smiling like a lovesick fool – falling in love suited him, and Shea. After almost a year of flirting with each other, the pair had finally acknowledged they liked one another. Samantha couldn’t be happier for them. She loved all there was to do with falling, and being, in love as much as she loved living in the country.
Spinning in dizzying circles, her hands clasped tightly in the reassuring grip of a guy that could possibly, one day in the future, become her brother-in-law, she tipped her head to the vast star-studded sky and squealed with delight as east, west, north and south became a kaleidoscope of sparkling colours. Conner chuckled beside her, his wholehearted laughter infectious. Never had she felt so alive, so free and so happy. This was what life was all about. Living in the moment. Being herself. Spending time with those she loved. The simple things. That’s what mattered most. Lost in her blissful bubble with her dearest of friends, she was stopped dead in her tracks by a firm hand to her arm.
‘What in the hell are you doing, Samantha.’ Heated slurred words swirled, the speaker reeking of rum.
‘Samantha, huh, sounds like I’m in trouble.’ Chuckling, it took her a few moments to focus her blurry gaze on Angus. ‘I wondered where you’d gotten to.’ She prodded him playfully in the chest. ‘I thought you might’ve fallen asleep, so your lovely brother here …’ She thumbed over her shoulder. ‘Has been taking very good care of me.’ She hiccupped, and her stomach swirled the wrong way – maybe she shouldn’t have drunk the entire bottle of bubbly.
‘Yeah, of course he has.’ Angus turned his steely gaze to his twin, now standing protectively at her side ‘It’s time to get out of here, Sam, right now,’ he ordered, grabbing her wrist then half dragging her in the direction of his car.
‘Sammie, no, he’s had way too much to drink.’ Shea raced after her and pushed her way in front of Angus, placing firm hands upon Samantha’s shoulders. ‘Please, stay here like we have planned, and Jack will drive us all home later in the morning, after the barbecue brekkie and a swim in the dam to sober us all up.’
Conner stepped in. ‘Yeah, bro, Shea’s right, you shouldn’t be driving in your state.’ Racing past Angus, and then reaching through the window of the hotted-up Commodore, Connor plucked the keys from where they dangled in the ignition.
‘Just watch me,’ Angus growled.
‘You’re not going anywhere if I’ve got anything to do with it.’ Connor swung the keys in the air before shoving them deep into his jeans pocket. ‘And neither are you, Samsung.’
Samantha smothered a chortle at Connor’s use of her new nickname, all because she had a Samsung phone, and …
Raising a clenched fist, Angus fired an entire sentence of expletives at Conner.
Oh Lord, here they go again …
‘Now come on you two, stop it.’ She frowned and her hands went to her hips. ‘You used to be best mates when you were kids, but all you seem to do lately is argue.’
Angus’s stern gaze shot to her. ‘Shut up, would you, and stay the hell out of this.’ Folding his arms as tightly as his furrowed brows, he looked back to Connor and chuckled sarcastically. ‘It’s over my dead body that you’re telling me, or her for that matter, what to do, little brother.’ He held his hand out. ‘Now give me my damn keys.’
Connor half-smirked. ‘Or what?’
Angus grunted. ‘Smug bastard, aren’t ya.’ Diving for his seventeen-minute-younger brother, he shoved Connor to the ground.
It was on for young and old as the two boys wrestled, rolling this way and that. Grunts and swear words echoed, and fists were brandished, then there was a full-on tussle, and a tug of war with the keys before Angus leapt triumphantly to his feet with the keys back in his possession.
‘Samantha, get in the car, now, we’re getting the hell out of here.’ Angus’s fierce tone made it clear he wasn’t in the mood for any mucking about.
Not wanting the boys to end up in another punching match, Samantha remained as quiet as a mouse as she did as she was told and quickly climbed into the passenger seat of the car. She didn’t want to be the one to upset the apple cart – there’d been too much of that lately, with Angus growing increasingly jealous of her friendship with his brother. It was odd, given the fact they’d all been mates since kindergarten. Her nerves now on tenterhooks, she jumped with fright when Shea rushed to the passenger side and knocked on her window.
Without the keys in the ignition, she couldn’t wind it down. She held her hands up and made an ‘I’m sorry’ face. Shea placed both hands up against the window and begged her not to go.
‘I have to,’ Samantha replied.
‘No, you don’t,’ Shea retorted.
Angus leapt behind the wheel and three willing passengers piled into the back seat. Unable to hold Shea’s worried gaze any longer, Samantha looked away. Revving the muscle car to growling life, Angus spun the wheels in showcase fashion, to the cheers of some, but not all, of the partygoers. As they fishtailed away, Samantha turned in her seat, wishing she’d had the guts to tell Angus to get stuffed, and instead stayed with her friends. But it was too late now. As Shea, Jack and Connor’s worried faces quickly faded in the taillights, she accepted her stupid decision and settled back with a suddenly heavy heart.
Tugging her seatbelt on, she made sure it was locked into place. This night wasn’t fun at all anymore. In fact, it suddenly felt very very bad. Her gut reaction in that moment of clarity was to tell Angus to pull over so she could get out, but then she shoved the spine-chilling sensation off. She didn’t want to upset him any more than he already was. She didn’t want another argument – tonight was all about celebrating. She’d been working towards this moment for twelve long years and talking about their highschool graduation party for what felt like forever. And now, in the blink of an eye, it was almost over. But not just yet; there were still a few more hours before the sun would rise on the first day of the rest of her life. And she was going to do her best to relish every second until then. So, twisting in her seat so she could keep one eye on the road and the other on Angus, she tried to be her usual carefree self. After all, with almost every girl at Gum Tree Gully High vying for his attention this past year, she felt lucky he’d remained true to their relationship.
Raucous, drunken laughter of familiar yet unacquainted fellow teenagers filled the back seat and carried into the front, as did a joint. Taking a decent draw, Angus passed it clockwise. Shocked, Samantha declined – drugs weren’t her thing at all, and neither had they been Angus’s, until now. Or not that she had known of. It would be a conversation for tomorrow, when he’d sobered up. When they’d sobered up. Their breaths lingered in a cannabis cloud that twirled in lazy circles, and she tried her best not to breathe it in, but it was hard with all the windows up. She hoped she didn’t reek of it when she arrived home – her dad would be livid, and she wouldn’t blame him. Outside, the world spun in a phantasmagoria of colours and images, too many drinks now making her feel woozy. Or maybe it was the second-hand marijuana? Nausea abruptly gripped her. Tight. Her stomach cramped and swirled. Oh god. Was she about to throw up? Angus would kill her if she heaved her dinner all over the interior of his beloved car. Momentarily squeezing her eyes shut, she breathed through the queasiness as Angus tore around the snug curves of the outskirts of the small North Queensland township, sending the back end of the car sideways. One too many times.
Terrified for her life, she gripped the sides of her seat. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut any longer. ‘Angus, slow down, please.’ Her plea fell on deaf ears. ‘Angus!’ But he wasn’t listening to her.
He floored the accelerator as they hit the straight, and the rickety old bridge above the creek they all swam in during the scorching summer months rumbled beneath the hot rod. The inky darkness, broken only by the beam of the headlights, suddenly became suffocating. She breathed faster, shallower, then almost forgot to. Waylon and Johnny’s honky-tonk voices boomed from the speakers, and the three travellers in the back sung the lyrics way out of tune, cans of rum and cola raised.
She was about to demand that Angus pull over so she could get out when her breath caught as a kangaroo shot out from the scrub and bounded across the road in front of them. She watched with wide eyes as it narrowly defied death. Swerving to miss the springing mass of muscle, Angus fought to stay between the white lines, all to congratulatory cheers from the back seat when he eventually regained control. But then headlights suddenly appeared over the hill and a male voice enthusiastically proclaimed a dare from the back seat. To Samantha’s horror, Angus eagerly accepted the game of chicken with the oncoming car. Petrified, she begged him not to be so stupid, but he still wouldn’t listen to her.
Then it all happened within a matter of seconds.
She held her breath.
Her terrified gaze met the approaching, familiar-looking sedan.
It couldn’t be?
Please god, no.
‘Anguuuuus … ’ Her cry resonated. ‘Nooooooooooo!’
The car swerved to the opposite side of the road, the V8 engine roaring like a wild beast when the accelerator was once again slammed to the floor. The oncoming car flashed its headlights to high beam. Once. Twice. The approaching driver pushed the horn intermittently, and then strongarmed it to an incessant blast that echoed through the night. The oncoming headlights grew bigger, brighter. Fast, way too fast. The jovial atmosphere cracked and crumbled. Fear sliced through the air. Sharp. Intense. Headlights met. Blinded. People cried out, screamed. Angus lost control and in a moment of grace that defied the imminent tragedy, the tyres no longer gripped the road and the hot-rod spun in dizzying circles. Samantha clung to what she could, preparing herself for the inescapable as Angus fought with the steering wheel.
Seconds felt like hours.
With nowhere else to go, the oncoming car veered onto the gravel bank. Connecting with the guardrail, it trailed sparks before catapulting through the air, flipping three times and coming to rest in an open paddock on its roof, tyres still spinning. A millisecond later the hot-rod slammed into one of the towering paperbark trees with a horrendous grinding crunch, wrapping itself around the trunk as if moulded for it, the twisted metal ripping the bark open like flesh. A body flew through the windscreen and landed in a mass of blood and shattered limbs. A vast empty space now sat where the star-studded sky used to be.
And other than Waylon and Johnny’s voices, there was spine-chilling silence.
Gum Tree Gully will be available in stores and online from the 4th of October 2023