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It began on an everyday, average Monday morning. Zoe arrived at the office punctually at eight forty-five, clutching her takeaway coffee, a necessary comfort when facing the start of the working week. To her surprise, her best friend bella was already at work.
Bella was usually a bit late, and as she'd just spent another weekend away visiting her father in the country Zoe had expected her to be later than ever. This Monday morning, however, Bella was not only at her desk early, but she had a huge grin on her face. And she was surrounded by a semicircle of excited workmates.
She was holding out her hand as if she was showing off a new manicure. No big surprise. Bella had a thing for manicures and she often chose very out-there nail polish with an interesting assortment of decorative additions.
But as Zoe drew closer, curious to check out her friend's latest fashion statement, she saw that Bella's nails were painted a subdued and tasteful taupe. And they were not the focus of everyone's attention.
The grins and squeals were for a sparkling ring.
On Bella's left hand.
Zoe's cardboard coffee cup almost slipped from her suddenly weak grasp. She managed to catch it just in time.
She was stunned.
And a bit stung, too.
Struggling to hang on to her smile, she hastily dumped the coffee and her handbag on her desk and hurried over to Bella.
She told herself she was misreading this. Bella couldn't be engaged. Her best friend would most definitely have told her if wedding bells were in the air. Zoe knew for a fact that Bella wasn't even dating anyone at the moment. Together, they'd been commiserating about their date drought, and they'd talked about trying for a double date online.
They'd even considered going on an overseas holiday togethera reconnaissance tour, checking out guys in other countries. Deepening the gene pool, Bella had called it during one of their regular Friday nights together.
Admittedly, for the past three weekends in a row Bella had travelled to her country home on the Darling Downs, and Zoe had been beginning to wonder what the attraction was. Bella had said she was worried about her widowed father, which was totally understandable, as her dad had been in a miserable slump for the past eighteen months ever since her mum died.
Bella had also mentioned her close and supportive neighbours, the Rigbys, and their son, Kentliterally, the boy next door, whom she'd known all her life.
Was something going on with this guy? Had he given Bella this ring?
Bella hadn't breathed a hint about a romance with anyone, but it was abundantly clear that the sparkle on her friend's finger was most definitely a diamond. And the name on her lips was 'Kent Rigby.'
Bella was grinning directly at Zoe now, an expectant light shining in her pretty green eyes.
'Wow!' Zoe managed, squeezing her cheek muscles to make sure she was smiling and not still looking like a stunned mullet. 'You're engaged!'
Bella dipped her head ever so slightly, as if she was trying to read Zoe's reaction, and Zoe cranked her smile another notch while she hunted for the right things to say. 'Sodoes this mean you and the boy next door have taken the plunge after all?'
She was trying not to sound too surprised, and she hoped she looked happy. She certainly didn't want the entire office to realise she was totally clueless about her best friend's romance.
Just in time, she remembered to give Bella a hug, and then she paid due homage to her ringa solitaire diamond, very tasteful, in a platinum setting, and appropriately delicate for Bella's slim, pale hands.
'It's gorgeous,' Zoe told Bella with genuine honesty. 'It's perfect.'
'Must have cost a bomb,' commented one of the girls behind her in an awed voice.
Eric Bodwin, their boss, arrived then and an awkward hush fell over the office until someone piped up with Bella's happy news.
Eric frowned, dragging his bushy eyebrows low, as if an employee's impending marriage was a huge inconvenience. But then he managed to say 'Congratulations,' with a grunting nod in Bella's direction, before he disappeared into his private den.
He'd never been the type of boss who chatted with his staff, so everyone was used to his gruffness. Nevertheless, his dampening presence put an end to the morning's excitement.
The semicircle of onlookers melted away. Only Zoe remained, her head so brimming with a thousand questions she was reluctant to go back to her desk. And she couldn't help feeling a tad put out that Bella had never confided in her.
'Are you all right, Zoe?' Bella asked cautiously.
'Of course, I'm fine.' Zoe touched Bella's ring finger. 'I'm stoked about this.'
'But you didn't reply to my text.'
'The one I sent you last night. Just before I left Willara Downs, I texted you with my good news.'
'Oh?' Zoe pulled a sheepish face. 'Sorry, Bell. I took myself to the movies last night, and I turned my phone off. Then I forgot to switch it back on.'
'Must have been a good movie,' Bella said dryly, but she was smiling again.
'It was. A lovely, mushy romance.'
Bella rolled her eyes, but they grinned at each other and Zoe was ridiculously pleased that she hadn't been left out after all.
'Meet me at The Hot Spot at lunchtime?' Bella asked next.
'Absolutely.' The busy little cafe on the corner was their favourite, and a meeting today was top priority.
Back at her desk, however, Zoe's spirits took another dive as she came to grips with the reality of Bella's startling news. She was losing her best friend. Bella would move back to the country to live with Kent Rigby and that would be the end of her close friendshiptheir mutual support over office grumbles, their lunchtime chats, their Friday night cocktails and joint shopping sprees.
It was definitely the end of their overseas holiday plans. And it was very puzzling that Bella had never confided in her about Kent. What did that say about their supposedly close friendship? glumly, Zoe retrieved her phone from her handbag and flicked it on to find two unread messagesboth from Bella.
At 6.35 p.m. last night:
The most amazing thing! Kent and I are engaged. So much to tell you. B xx
And then at 9.00 p.m.:
Where r u? Gotta talk. x
Zoe winced. If she'd been available for a heart-to-heart chat last night, she'd know everything now and perhaps she'd understand how this engagement had happened so quickly.
Instead, she had to get through an entire morning's work before she received a single answer to her thousand and one questions.
'You're getting married?'
'Sure.' Kent pitchforked fresh hay into the horse stall, then angled a meaningful glance to his mate Steve who leaned on the rails, watching. 'Why else would I be asking you to be my best man?'
Steve's eyes widened. 'So you're dead-set serious?'
'I'm serious.' Kent grinned. 'Getting married isn't something to joke about.'
'I guess it isn't. It's just that we all thought' Steve stopped and grimaced.
'You all thought I'd carry on playing the field for ever,' Kent supplied.
'Maybe not for ever.' Steve's grin was sly. 'But heck man, you never gave the impression you were planning to settle down just yet, even though plenty of girls have tried their hardest.'
Kent's jaw tightened as he thrust the pitchfork back into the hay bale. He'd anticipated Steve's surpriseand yeah, maybe his disbeliefbut his friend's reaction still rankled. It was true that he'd dated plenty of girls without getting serious. In the past. But those days were over now. He had responsibilities to shoulder.
Steve's ruddy face twisted into a baffled smile, and he scratched at the side of his sunburned neck. 'Crikey.'
'You're supposed to say congratulations.'
'Of course, mate. Goes without saying.' Balancing a booted foot on the rail, Steve leaned into the stall, holding out his hand. His eyes blazed with goodwill. 'Congratulations, Kent. I mean it. Bella's an ace girl. She's terrific. The two of you will be a great team.'
He shook Kent's hand.
'I shouldn't have been so surprised,' Steve added, accompanying the words with a shrug. 'It makes sense. You and Bella have always been like' He held up a hand, displaying his index finger and forefinger entwined.
Kent acknowledged this truth with a nod and a smile. He and Bella Shaw had been born six months apart to families on neighbouring properties. As infants they'd shared a playpen. As youngsters they had joint swimming and riding lessons. They'd gone to school together, travelling into Willara each day on the rattling school bus, swapping the contents of their lunch boxes and sharing the answers to their homework.
From as far back as Kent could remember, their two families had gathered on the banks of Willara Creek for regular barbecues. Their fathers had helped each other with shearing or mustering. Their mothers had swapped recipes, knitting patterns and old wives' tales.
When Kent was just six years old, Bella's dad had saved his life.
And now, with luck, Kent was returning the favour.
He felt OK about it. Honestly, he was happy with the future he and Bella had planned.
Just the same, Kent would have been relieved to get a few things off his chest to Steve. In the past few years his load had mounted steadily.
When his dad had hankered for an early retirement, Kent had taken on the bulk of the farm work. Then Bella's mother had died, and her father, the very man who'd saved his life when he was a kid, had started drinking himself to death. Desperately worried, Kent had helped out there as well, putting in long hours ploughing fields and mending neglected fences.
Bella, of course, had been distraught. She'd lost her mother and now she was likely to lose her father, and if these weren't enough troubles to bear, her family's property was rapidly going down the drain.
A host of heavy emotions was tied up in their decision to marry, but although Kent was tempted to confide in Steve he wouldn't off-load his baggage, not even to his best friend.
'I hear Bella's dad's in a bad way,' Steve said. 'He's been keeping very much to himself and he needs to slow down on his drinking.'
Kent's head shot up. Had Steve guessed things were worse than most people realised?
'Tom has the beginnings of heart failure,' he said slowly.
'That's a worry.'
'It is, but if he looks after himself, he should be OK.'
Steve nodded. 'And once you're his son-in-law, you'll be able to keep a closer eye on him.'
Clearly, Steve thought their decision was reasonable, but then his eyes flashed as he sent Kent a cheeky smirk. 'You and Bella are a sly pair though, keeping this under wraps in a gossipy town like Willara.' He snapped a piece of straw between his fingers and raised his eyebrows. 'So, when's the happy day? I suppose I'll have to wear a penguin suit.'
When Zoe burst into The Hot Spot, Bella was already there, waiting in their favourite corner booth with salad sandwiches and two chai lattes.
'That was the longest morning of my life,' Zoe moaned as she hurled herself into a seat. 'Thanks for getting lunch.'
'It was my turn.'
Reaching across the table, Zoe touched the diamond on Bella's left hand. 'This is real, isn't it? You're properly engaged. I'm not dreaming.'
'It's totally real.' Bella gave a crooked little grin. 'But I must admit I still have to pinch myself.'
'You, too?' Drawing a deep breath to calm her racing thoughts, Zoe asked carefully, 'So you weren't expecting this engagement?'
'Not really,' Bella said, blushing. 'But it wasn't exactly a surprise either.'
Zoe blinked and gave a helpless flap of her hands.
'I'm sorry, I'm lost already. You're going to have to explain this.' She took a sip of her chai latte, but she was too intent on Bella's response to register the sweet and spicy flavour she usually loved.
'There's not a lot to explain.' Bella tucked a shiny strand of smooth blond hair behind one ear. 'The thing is even when we were kids there was a lingering suggestion from Kent's and my parents that we might eventuallyyou knowend up together some day. They teased us when we were little, then toned it down later, but all the time we were growing up it was there in the background as a possibility.'
This was news to Zoe and she couldn't help asking, 'How come you've never mentioned it?'
Bella looked contrite. 'You must think I'm crazy, talking so much about guys without ever really mentioning Kent.'
'You spoke about him, but you said he was just a friend.'
'He was. For ages. We were just.neighbours.and good mates ' Her shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. 'To be honest, I'd never seriously thought about marrying him. But then'
Zoe leaned closer. 'Is Kent the reason you've headed for home every weekend lately?'
Pink crept into Bella's cheeks and her green eyes took on a touching mistiness as she held out her left hand and admired her ring again. 'It sort of crept up on us. Kent's been so sweet.'
'Oh-h-h ' Watching the dewy smile on Bella's lips, Zoe was overcome by the romantic possibilities of her friend's situation. Her skin turned to goose bumps and she could picture it all: a wonderful, long-term friendship where a couple felt really comfortable with each other, and knew each other inside outall the good bits and the bad. Then, suddenly, they were hit by a blinding and beautiful truth.
So different from Zoe's soul-destroying experience with Rodney the Rat.
'Out of the blue you just realised you were in love and meant for each other,' she said.
'And you definitely know Kent's Mr Right?' Another nod.
Zoe couldn't believe the way her throat was choking up. 'I thought those blinding flashes of insight only happened in movies, but look at you. This is a real life friends-to-lovers romance!' To her embarrassment, a tear spilled down her cheek.
'So you understand?' Bella's smile was a mixture of sympathy and relief.
'My head's still trying to catch up, but I guess I understand here.' Not caring how melodramatic she looked, Zoe pressed a hand over her heart. 'I'm happy for you, Bell. Truly.'
'Thanks.' In a blink, Bella was out of her chair and the girls were hugging. 'I knew you'd understand.'
'Your dad must be thrilled,' Zoe said when Bella had sat down again.
To her surprise, a flood of colour rushed into Bella's face and then she paled and looked down at the sandwich in front of her. She pulled at a piece of lettuce poking out from the bread. 'Yes, he's very happy,' she said quietly.
Puzzled, and just a little worried by the reaction, Zoe wasn't sure what to say next. Something wasn't right here.
Or was she imagining Bella's tension?