When jaded city girl Maddy McIntyre packs up and leaves Adelaide for a new job in the country, it’s not only a chance at a fresh start. Six months ago, the first guy she’d ever loved shattered her heart before moving home to Broken Hill. Deep down inside, Maddy is hoping that living in the same town will give her an opportunity to prove to Luke that she’s one temptation he can’t resist.
But when she arrives in Broken Hill, Luke White is not the same guy she knew in the city. And it soon seems very clear that he doesn’t want her there. Although Maddy settles in quickly, excelling at work and partying with her new friends, she can’t understand why Luke is remaining so distant. Particularly when all her instincts are telling her that they’re meant to be together – and that he feels the same burning attraction.
As Maddy learns more about Luke’s family and background, she begins to understand that his mixed messages are caused by balancing what’s expected of him with what he really wants. Maddy gave Luke her heart long ago and, despite their differences, she knows she’ll only ever be happy with her hot country boy. But how can she convince him that she’s the risk he needs to take?
‘It’s like something out of Wolf Creek.‘ Aubree’s brow furrowed as she gazed at the long, straight road ahead.
My fingers tightened around the steering wheel as I squinted through the haze reflecting off the sizzling bitumen. ‘Sure is,’ I mumbled. ‘Where the hell are we?’ Saltbush dotted the landscape on either side of the road, and in the distance three rocky pinnacles broke through the flat, barren horizon. I swallowed, hoping we weren’t lost.
Aubree dropped her iPhone into her bag. ‘No internet.’ She pulled a map from the glove box and unfolded it. ‘Have we passed through Yunta yet?’
‘Yeah, you blinked,’ I said and laughed. ‘You dozed off for a few minutes.’
Her finger trailed along the paper. ‘Okay. So we should make it to Broken Hill in about an hour. Do you have another map of the town so I can work out how to get to your new home?’
New home. My stomach rolled with excitement and nerves, hearing her say the words. Two months ago I signed a teaching contract, believing it to be an opportunity to prove myself, take responsibility for my future, even if it was 500 kilometres from home.
‘Nope, don’t need one. The real estate agent said to follow the road into town, pass the cemetery, turn right before the school, travel a kilometre down the road and turn left into Cornish Street.’
Aubree fetched her phone out of her bag for the zillionth time. ‘I’ve got nothing. No mobile coverage, not even one bar. We’re all alone out here.’
‘Look.’ I pointed to something red at the roadside ahead.
‘Oh God,’ she said. ‘Please don’t tell me it’s another kangaroo carcass. I feel sick thinking that a joey could be alive inside.’ She turned her head to the window. ‘Wait. Stop the car.’
‘They’re only wildflowers. What’s your problem?’ I veered to the left and slowed to a safe speed on loose gravel.
‘I’ve read about these wildflowers. The Sturt Desert Pea,’ she said excitedly. ‘They’re exquisite.’ Aubree jumped out of the car and walked to the plant growing alongside the gravel. She kneeled in a delicate manner so as not to dirty her lemon maxidress.
I opened my door and followed. I gasped when she started picking handfuls of the red and black flower. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Collecting some for your house.’
I flicked flies from my face before saying, ‘It doesn’t feel right. I mean, are you allowed?’ We both jumped when a truck roared past on the opposite side of the road and sounded the horn. ‘See?‘ I said.
Aubree rolled her eyes. ‘You’re wearing tiny denim shorts, Mads. I think he’s honking at you.’
I ignored her comment. My shoulders burned under the midday sun, introducing me to the extreme weather of outback Australia. Flies hammered my face and had formed a polka-dot pattern on Aubree’s back. Gross.
Before climbing back into the car we flapped our arms as though we were about to take flight, ensuring no flies snuck inside. I turned the air con to max and glanced at Aubree, fiddling with the flowers.
Oh shit. She wasn’t wearing her ring. I clearly remembered Hunter – my cousin and superstar football player – telling her in no uncertain terms that she was to wear the pink diamond ring, a twenty-first birthday gift, on her wedding finger while accompanying me for the weekend. I cleared my throat.
‘Where’s your ring?’
Aubree pulled her hair-tie out of her long hair before looping it around the flower stems. ‘Oh, I left it home in case I lost it.’
‘What? You know Hunter will be pissed.’
‘I hid it so he’ll never find out,’ she said, and waved her hand in a nonchalant manner.
I groaned. ‘You want to hope he doesn’t. The last thing I need is Hunter showing up and ruining everything for me.’ I gave her a look before turning my eyes back to the road.
‘First of all, I don’t need a ring to protect me from guys wanting to talk with me. And second, I’m not sure how he’d ruin things for you. Unless . . .’ I could feel her eyes on me, scrutinising. ‘Be honest, does your decision to move to Broken Hill have anything to do with Luke?’
I glanced at her. ‘No, why would it?’
‘Because you never really got over him. And now you’re taking up this teaching position – and I get that it’s a great opportunity – but it is in the same town he moved back to six months ago.’
My heartbeat stuttered. ‘It has nothing to do with Luke,’ I said, louder than necessary. ‘I was offered three teaching contracts: two were based in Adelaide working three days a week, and both an hour from my home. I needed full-time work and the only full-time contract was in the country. Plus there’s isolation bonuses, so I thought if I stayed a couple of years, I’d return to Adelaide with savings.’
‘So you don’t ever think about him?’
‘I didn’t say I don’t think about him but he’s not the reason—’
‘I knew it.’ She folded her arms across her chest. ‘He might not be the reason but he’s the incentive.’
‘Don’t read into it, Aubs. I only think about the things he used to say, that’s all.’
‘Aw, that’s sweet.’
‘You’re a drama queen,’ I quipped in a deep voice, mimicking Luke. ‘Can’t you go anywhere without being the centre of attention?’ I shook my head. ‘When he said it, it didn’t sound so sweet.’
‘He really said that?’
I nodded and pointed to the side of the road. ‘Four,’ I said, totalling the number of dead kangaroos I’d seen on the side of the road.
Aubree groaned. ‘Ew.’
We sat quietly for a few minutes before she broke the silence. ‘You know, you never told me the real reason why you two split. I thought after ten or so months you were both happy.’
It pained me to reveal the details of our breakup even to my best friend. Irreconcilable differences, isn’t that the term used? Except, in my mind, we were compatible and happy. It was Luke who – out of the blue – announced he no longer wanted to be part of a relationship, since he was returning home. He didn’t see the point. Hell of a way to make me feel special! I coughed.
‘I was happy, but Luke . . . Before he left he’d said that he’d found work back home as a geologist and was also helping out his uncle with the family business. He emphasised that he didn’t believe in long-distance relationships, plus he’d be too busy to worry about a girl.’
‘Yep. I was stupid enough to even beg him to give us a chance.’ I sighed, remembering the empty look on his face. ‘He didn’t hesitate, just said no.’
‘So I’m actually hoping not to see him, as I’m still embarrassed about the whole thing.’ Truth was, I hadn’t stopped thinking about Luke and deep down hoped to run into him – although not until I was settled, so he could see how well I’m doing.
‘Oh God,’ Aubree murmured. ‘It’s not one of those look-at-what-you-could’ve-had plans is it? Where you go to extreme lengths to prove yourself?’
‘Of course not. Why would you think that?’ I cringed when Aubree said it out loud.
‘Because you and Hunter are exactly alike,’ she admonished. She reached out and touched my hand. ‘I love you both but . . . just be careful. No one knows you here.’
‘That’s my point,’ I said quickly. ‘It’s a perfect scenario. I’m sick of being known as Hunter’s cousin and getting attention for all the wrong reasons. I can actually meet new friends with a clean slate. It’s like having a new identity. Luke thought I was an attention seeker and it bugged me. So, the last thing I want is Hunter showing up and causing a circus. And I hope there is no need for him to come here looking for you. So he better not find that ring.’
My gaze remained fixed on the road, although I could feel Aubree staring at me.
‘I’m really proud of you and don’t worry about Hunter, the ring is safe. Besides, he’ll have his hands full looking after Honey. She’s been naughty lately, ripping up his football socks and burying them in the backyard.’
I laughed, and at the same time strained my eyes to the distance. ‘Look.’
Aubree turned to the road and we both stared in silence. The sun reflected off rooftops rising out of the red dirt in the middle of bloody nowhere.
We met with the real estate agent to pick up the keys to my new rental property and found the fully furnished house without much trouble. It had character, not the standard brick, rendered or Tudor-style home often seen in the city; at a guess, it looked over one hundred years old. A black, bull-nosed verandah ran the length of the cream single frontage. Inside, we found a long hallway with doors on the left leading to rooms. The first two doors were bedrooms and the third was the living room, featuring a red modular lounge. The hallway continued to the kitchen, where the house expanded: there was another bedroom, the bathroom, a laundry and the back door.
Aubree helped me to unload the car. After carrying the luggage inside, we headed out to a shopping centre for essential groceries. We sorted and reorganised the kitchen, then I unpacked my suitcases. Next, Aubree suggested we check out the backyard. She opened the back door and my jaw dropped. A pergola overlooked an inground pool, with palms bordering the long fence line. The entertaining area included a pull-down screen attached to a beam for movies, for use, I imagined, while swimming in the pool or just lazing around. Images flashed into my head of pool parties with new friends.
‘This is pretty cool.’
Not sure if the forty-five degree heat had affected my grey matter, I turned to Aubree and said, ‘Last one in has to buy a bottle of Pinot.’ I then sprinted to the pool and jumped in. Aubree made a splash behind me. When we surfaced, we erupted into giggles.
We pulled ourselves out of the water and flopped onto the poolside lounges, not worrying about towels, knowing we’d dry quickly in the country heat. My drenched clothes didn’t concern me but when I glanced at Aubree’s yellow dress I momentarily panicked, thinking the chlorine would damage its delicate material.
‘Your dress?’ I said in a high voice.
She shrugged. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll hand wash it later. I needed that dip.’
I grinned at her. ‘Doesn’t change the fact you were last in, so you lose.’
We sat back on the lounges, shaded by an umbrella, and gazed at the sunburnt sky as the sun set. It was pretty darn amazing and unlike my backyard at home, I could see a whole lot of sky. Orange shades drowned into pink, with a splash of brilliant yellow colouring the horizon.
Aubree moaned. ‘I love the relaxed feeling of sitting outside at twilight on a hot summer night. It reminds me of Hunter’s holiday house in Victor.’
‘Well, we’re far from the beach here,’ I added. ‘But I heard there’s a lake where the locals ski.’
Aubree turned to me. ‘I really think you’re going to like it here. I have a lot of faith in you, Mads.’
Later that night we headed into town, starving and craving a cold white wine after a long, yet productive, day. We dined at a pub named the Cross, ordering the steak special.
‘It’s crowded in there,’ Aubree said and nodded towards a door that swung open and led to the front bar. ‘We should go in and meet some of the locals.’
I pushed my plate aside. It was silly to be nervous about meeting new people but I wanted to make a good first impression. At least I wouldn’t look like a loner, having Aubree by my side.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ the waitress asked after collecting our plates.
‘No, thanks,’ I replied. ‘Could you tell me what time the pub closes?’
‘Midnight. Are you from outta town?’ We both nodded. ‘Well, there are clubs near the railway and some on the main street stay open till later. See Randy behind the bar,’ she nodded in the direction of the front bar, ‘and he’ll give you the names and directions.’
After paying the bill we headed to the front bar. I glanced at Aubree. ‘Here goes.’ I pushed through the adjoining door, and was stopped abruptly by the bodies filling the room.
‘Allow me,’ Aubree insisted and stepped in front, leading the way. Being almost a foot taller, she made a path to the bar. My heart swelled, seeing her walk with confidence, and I knew Hunter was partially to thank for the change in her. It wasn’t that long ago that she’d have cowered behind me, regardless of her height.
The hum of chatter and laughter echoed off the walls, almost louder than the music piping through speakers at the back of the room. The centrally located bar allowed me to see to the other side, to a group of guys playing pool. I noticed there were more guys on that side of the room, with the women on this side, although a few men had infiltrated the girl groups. I glanced at my phone. Ten o’clock.
Just as I ordered drinks, Aubree pulled her phone from her bag. ‘Shit, it’s Hunter. I better take this outside.’
Now alone, I stepped sideways in an attempt to worm between bodies to the back of the room to remain inconspicuous. I bumped into a girl on my left and she swung around with an accusing expression.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said quickly.
‘Hey, all good.’ She eyed me curiously. ‘You don’t look familiar. Where you from?’
‘Adelaide.’ I smiled at her. ‘I’m Maddy.’
‘Hi, Maddy, I’m Kristen, and these are my friends Lauren, Olivia and Steph.’
‘Hi,’ they said together.
My gaze wandered to the three girls’ tanned faces. ‘My friend Aubree has just stepped outside to take a call,’ I added, wanting them to know I wasn’t hanging out alone. ‘Boyfriend troubles.’ I rolled my eyes.
‘God, talk about it,’ Kristen said, pushing long brown hair behind her ear. ‘That’s why we’re out. Steph’s ex-boyfriend is causing her grief so we thought we’d take her on a girls night. Only problem is, he’s over there.’ She jerked her finger to the group of guys playing pool.
I looked where she pointed, and my gaze fell on each guy before stopping on the blond leaning on a pool cue in the corner. A shiver ran down my spine. My heart thumped before continuing at a quicker rate.
My eyes locked with Luke’s. A number of emotions crossed his face and for a moment I recognised something we had once shared before it was replaced with something else. He looked so bloody hot. His hair looked blonder than I remembered. Maybe because of his tan, which made his white T-shirt appear even whiter. It only took a couple of moments for realisation to set in and then those brown eyes narrowed. Clearly, neither of us expected to see the other. Noticing I was holding my breath, I breathed out and forced my gaze away just as Aubree came striding through the door.
‘All sorted,’ she said without giving me time to dwell on the Luke thing.
‘Good.’ I downed my drink and resisted the urge to turn back to him. If I wanted to stick to my plan, then I needed to not mention him, especially in front of Aubree.
‘Hi, you must be Aubree,’ Kristen said. ‘Boyfriend troubles, eh?’
Aubree shot me a confused look then smiled as I introduced Kristen and her friends. They stood shoulder to shoulder, and I realised how similar Kristen and Aubree looked. Both were tall with long brown hair and slim figures, only Kristen had blue eyes and Aubree green.
‘So, Hunter’s okay?’ I asked, making conversation so I wasn’t tempted to look over my shoulder to Luke. But it was damn hard, knowing he stood only metres away. For months I had imagined what I would do, what I would say to him if I got the opportunity. And now, I had nothing.
‘Yeah, just asked where I was.’
Before I had a chance to speak, the noise level in the room dropped to whispers and gasps, a reaction I was familiar with. I spun around to the front door and saw Hunter standing a good head above the tallest person in the room, his gaze scanning the crowd.
Damn you, cuz, not tonight.
‘Oh fuck.’ I grabbed Aubree’s arm. ‘Are you sure that’s all he said? ʼCause he’s here.’
Aubree spun around and their eyes met. ‘Shit.’ She turned to me, her beautiful face lined. ‘I’m sorry. I know this is not what you wanted.’
Heads turned to Hunter like falling dominoes. Not only was Hunter a football star, he was gorgeous, and my heart swelled knowing I was related to him. With blue eyes fixed on Aubree, he made a beeline towards us, the crowd separating to let him pass.
‘Evening, ladies.’ Hunter’s smooth voice washed over our circle. ‘I believe you forgot something, Aubree.’ He pulled a ring from his jean pocket and slid it along her finger.
‘You didn’t . . .’ She shook her head in disbelief. Then Hunter pulled her close and kissed her.
I glanced at my new friends, who were watching with mouths gaping. Standard. I elbowed Hunter and said, ‘I’d like to introduce you to our friends. Kristen, Olivia, Lauren and Steph, this is my cousin—’
‘Hunter Stone,’ Kristen finished, wide-eyed.
‘What the hell just happened?’ Steph asked. ‘Am I at the Cross or have I died and gone to heaven?’
‘Depends,’ Hunter said. ‘I’m thinking of stringing Aubree up on a cross.’ Aubree covered his mouth with her hand and shook her head.
‘So Hunter’s your cousin,’ Kristen said. ‘I can see the resemblance. You have the same blue eyes and black hair, but you’re prettier.’ She grinned. ‘I’m not really a Blackbirds fan.’ I laughed at her frankness, especially in front of Hunter. Although it fell on deaf ears, as his attention remained on Aubree.
‘How long are you staying?’ Olivia directed her question to the three of us although when her eyes found Hunter, she twirled a strand of brown hair around her finger.
‘Hunter and Aubree are here for the weekend and I start a teaching contract next week.’
‘Well, if you want to see any of the sights let me know.’ Steph pulled a business card from her bag and handed it to me. ‘I work at the tourist centre.’ She smiled. With her slim frame and dark hair cut short, she reminded me of one of those vampires in Twilight.
‘Which school?’ Kristen asked, turning her attention back to me while her friends swooned over Hunter.
‘The one near the cemetery. I’m teaching junior primary.’
A smile spread across Kristen’s face. ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I teach year two at the same school.’
‘You do? That’s awesome!’
Suddenly I was shoved as the crowd surged forwards with people trying to get closer to Hunter. I turned away as phone cameras flashed in the air above the crowd.
‘I’ll take him back to yours,’ Aubree suggested. ‘Give me your keys.’
I shrugged. ‘It’s fine, don’t bother. Tongues will be already wagging.’
She gave me her I’m sorry look. I turned to the bar and peeped at the corner of the room. Luke was still there. This time when our eyes met, the raw emotion had disappeared. He shook his head and turned away.
Yeah, I was already the centre of attention.
I grew up in Broken Hill a town in far west New South Wales, Australia. Situated in a desert climate where hot dry summers are common, and so are the magical coloured sunsets. Dust storms are simply tolerated. I remember walking home from school in the middle of a dust storm and the red dirt whipping the bare skin of my legs.
During my childhood I also remember the freedom, and the need to explore. As a kid, I would take off on my bike for hours, exploring the outskirts of the town — and searching for Sturt’s Desert Pea — only to return home when hungry or the light was fading into night.
During my teens I played a variety of sport, and developed a sense of community within the sporting bodies.
When I met my future husband, dating became tricky. Small towns are renowned to have a gossip grapevine. The Silver City is a mining town and breeds tough young men, any you could meet at the local pubs on weekends. Despite their rough diamond image, it’s the simplicity of romance that makes many eligible country bachelors happy.
My husband — boyfriend at the time — and I often discovered different places to go on dates. I for one became tired of the usual ‘meet me at the pub’ scene. On weekends, the town comes alive with numerous clubs, pubs and a nightclub in the main street. The people of Broken Hill are known for their friendly manner and are always ready to have a good time. The atmosphere inside a pub quickly escalates with the music, especially since most people know each other, and the night turns into a celebration, just because it’s the weekend.
Yet there are many places to host a romantic date in this oasis in the desert.
Besides the many restaurants and cafes, picnics can be intimate, especially while watching the sun sink into the Mundi Mundi plains, lighting up the sky in brilliant shades of pink, orange and yellow. You only need a rug, chairs, some nibbles and champagne to make it a memorable date.
One of my favourite places is the Sculptures, nine kilometres out of town. Artists like Pro Hart, are renowned all over the world, yet many came from around the world to create the 12 massive sandstone sculptures. Dramatic sunsets can be seen from this sanctuary but considering its popularity with tourists, you might not be alone.
If you like watching sunsets, then you don’t have to drive far to get out of town for an uninterrupted view. I remember lying on the bonnet of my hubby’s car one summer’s night and taking in the stars, pointing out the Southern Cross and other star formations. Nowadays horoscopes, stars and planets can be easily identified with apps on our phones to make it more fun.
With the appeal reality TV shows like a ‘Farmer Wants a Wife’ has to young women searching for a new life, the attraction of living in the country has many positives, and yet I also enjoy living in a small city. Though I have to admit, my country man is the perfect husband!
The best thing I remember about living in the outback: the serenity is mesmerising.