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When Flynn Quartermaine drove into town, he couldn't get a newspaper or pick up his mail without being stopped by someone or other on the main street. He'd lived in the small farming community of Hope Junctionsoutheast of Perth and affectionately known to locals as Hopeevery one of his twenty-nine years. He knew everyone and they knew him. And he was famous. Aside from his legendary streak across the oval on Grand Final day ten years ago, he was the last baby born in the local hospital, having just slipped out before the maternity ward was closed and everyone had to travel farther afield.
What was most embarrassing to Flynn was that people still talked about this. Whenever someone new came to town, or a long-lost relative was passing through, the first thing the introducer would say was, "Meet Flynn, he was the last baby born in our hospital." Nothing about the fact he ran one of the biggest farms in the district. Nothing about almost doubling his family's income by introducing South African Meat Merinos (or SAMMs for short) to their flock. Nothing about how other local farmers followed suit. But then, perhaps he should be grateful people didn't mention other things.
There were some things no guy liked to be reminded about.
Today, however, there wasn't a single mention of babies. And instead of flocking when they saw him coming, people quickly turned away. It was odd. Flynn picked up some supplies for his mother and drove back out to the family property, keen to return and get onto the football oval, run around with his mates and shake this sense of unease.
The feeling started to dissipate as soon as he turned his ute into Black Stumpthe 5,000-acre property that had been in his family for four generations. As corny as it might sound, he loved the place. He'd been raised on the massive homestead, with board games round the fire in winter and fun in the damswhen they had waterin summer. He belonged to this land and it had a way of calming him like no person ever could. Well, not anymore.
But the moment he walked through his mom's kitchen door, the strangeness returned. His heart kicked up a notch and he knew he hadn't been imagining the weirdness in town. In fact, he sensed Saturday was about to get a lot more than strange.
Flynn's grandmother sat at the family's big oak table knitting another tea cozy to be sold at the CWA craft stall. Karina, his mother, hovered at the stove stirring something that smelled a lot like her famous crisis-time minestrone. It was her contribution whenever the townsfolk got together to provide for volunteers in an emergency. And his teenage sister, Lucy, had her iPod around her neck and one foot on the table, painting her toenails a ghastly shade of purple, which no doubt had some ridiculous name like Flashbulb Fuchsia. They were deep in conversation. Or had been, anyway. He could tell, because the moment he stepped inside, the room went eerily silent and they all feigned over-the-top attention to their various tasks. Exactly like every shop he'd stepped into that morning. What the hell was going on?
Flynn stomped to the fridge, retrieved an ice-cold can of Coke, cracked it open and turned to face them all.
"Okay. Out with it. Have I grown an extra head or what?" He ran a hand through his blond, freshly cut hair. Even Emma, his hairdresser, had been strangely quiet. She hadn't tried to con him into enhancing his tips as she usually did.
"No need for sarcasm, love."
He tossed a reproachful glare at his mom and, for one terrible second, wondered if someone had come good on their promise to enter him in Australia's much-loved Farmer Wants a Wife show. Friends and family had been threatening for years: You're almost thirty, Flynn. As if being thirty meant he should suddenly hang up his single cap and find himself a wife, a four-wheel drive and a white picket fence.
He wouldn't do it, though. No matter how good the PR would be for the town, there was no way in hell he was pimping himself in such a manner. Unlike some people he knew, he didn't see the appeal of publicity and bright lights.
Still eyeing him warily, Karina dumped the wooden spoon in the pot, wiped her hands on her apron and sighed. "Well, I suppose if anyone has to tell you, it might as well be me. Sit down, Flynn."
Sit down? He looked long and hard at the three women scattered around the traditional farm kitchen. People only ever said sit down when it was bad news. When someone had been killed or given months to live. But they were all breathingeven Granny, who'd just celebrated eighty years, was healthy and vibrantand he'd already lost his dad. So what could be so terrible? So dramatic? Who could it be?
Granny stood and beckoned a long, knobbly finger at his sister. "Come on, Lu, you can help me box my tea cozies."
"No, thanks," Lucy said. "I'll help later, Gran, but I wouldn't miss this for any-thing."
"Scoot, Luce," shot his mom without breaking his gaze.
Lucy groaned, moaned and did her usual teenage eye roll, but she eventually vacated the room, followed by their grandmother.
"Must be something terrible," mumbled Flynn, collapsing onto a chair. When his mom pulled her stool close and scooped up his hand, his heart went into overdrive. He ripped his hand back, feeling momentarily guilty as hurt flashed across Karina's eyes. But all such emotions were lost when she finally spoke.
"Ellie's coming back."
Flynn opened his mouth but no sound came out. He sat still for a moment, the words echoing in his head.
Then, "Fuck!" He shot out of his chair and stormed onto the veranda.
Ten years! Ten years since she'd left him standing at the altar in a mixture of shock, hurt and embarrassment, questioning why. He thought he'd pulled through, dealt with all those feelings, moved on. But he couldn't have, not the way his eyes were prickling and his heart was pounding.
He spun around, not knowing what to do, before he thumped the veranda post and headed back into the kitchen. Needing to keep his hands busy, he reached for his Coke, but he misjudged and his fingers hit the side of the can, toppling it over.
"Leave it," his mom said. Her lips were pursed and he could tell she was a hairbreadth from tears herself. "It'll be okay."
"No use crying over spilt Coke," he said, trying to make a joke. But his tone wasn't funny and Karina didn't laugh. He knew she was terrified that Ellie's return would send him back to the way he'd been before. She'd already lost her husband. She didn't need to lose her son.
As much as he wanted to retreat to his own spaceto forget about the afternoon's game and head to the dam at the far end of their propertyhe couldn't. He had to maintain the facade for his mom. For the town. He had to pretend he didn't care, pretend the thought of running into Ellie didn't send him into a cold sweat.
It would be easier, he reflected, if he'd found out she'd died. At least that way he'd come to terms with the grief. Surely. Things would be completely different. He wouldn't have to hide photos of her in a box at the back of his wardrobe. People would talk about her fondly, sharing memories, rather than making sure they never uttered her name in his presence. He knew they talked; it's what people in small communities did best. But they never talked about her to him. The town protected him. If people pitied him, he didn't know, but around here, there wasn't any sign that Ellie Hughes had ever existed. It was as if the moment she'd walked out of his life, she'd vacated the planet. In the newsagent, he never saw her face in TV Week or on the cover of Women's Weekly. But if he went further afield, to Perth or Bunbury, she was constantly in the limelight. Australia adored her. In a way, that hurt Flynn, but it was nothing on the sadness she'd left inside him. The black hole that no attempts at relationships, no casual sex, no nothing, had ever been able to fill.
Working hard to keep his breathing steady, he cleaned up the Coke and recalled some gossip he'd heard at the hairdresser. He might not be able to take his mind off Ellie, but he'd do his damn best to stop his mom thinking about her.
"Some townies are reviving the theatrical society." He ditched the wet tea towel in the sink and leaned back against the table.
"So I heard. Good news travels fast." Karina gestured to the row of tiny nail polish bottles on the table. "Lucy's planning on auditioning. For some reason, she thinks the color of her nails will make all the difference. And of course, she has to test them all first."
Flynn frowned. "You're not going to let her, are you? Year twelve is huge, she should be concentrating on her studies."
Karina raised her eyebrows and smirked. "When did you become so old and stuck in the mud?"
"Don't forget the wise bit."
"Whatever," Karina said, waving a hand in front of her face, mimicking her daughter in both language and action. "Lucy won't listen to me. She'll only sulk and pout and ignore her exams altogether if I don't let her get in on this. Besides, it's just a fad. She wanted to start a cheerleading troupe for the Hurricanes last term, remember?"
"Yeah, I suppose."
But his gut felt heavy at the thought of his little sister acting. No matter, the distraction seemed to have worked. His mom was once again stirring her soup with an attentive look upon her face.
Flynn took the chance to slip out the back.
* * *
As the Transwa bus turned into Hope Junction, Ellie tugged the rim of her sports cap down, hoping, with the help of her dark sunnies, that it would cover much of her face. Wearing bland jeans and a man's flannelette shirt, and with her mousy, chocolate-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, she prayed that no one would recognize Stella Williamsone of Australia's favorite television charactersat least for now. She just wanted the chance to get to Matilda without attention, without anyone confronting her and telling her, in what would no doubt be colorful language, exactly what they thought of her.
But she knew it was only a short-term fix. There were no secrets in the entertainment industry, and even fewer in small towns. Everyone would be on high alert, awaiting her arrival. Next week's glossies would have the news of her sudden departure from the set, with some happy to speculate on the reason while others dug deeper for the truth. Either way, Ellie's return to Hope wouldn't remain a secret for long.
She imagined most people in her situation would be smiling, reminiscing fondly, eager to start adding to their memories. She had fond recollections, too, if she looked back far enough, but they'd all been railroaded by her most painful memory. The memory of making the biggest mistake of her life and, as a result, having to leave the only place she'd ever really called home.
But no one knew the real reason she'd left, not even Matilda. They just thought she was a selfish bimbo, a girl who hadn't fallen far from her parents' tree and couldn't hack commitment any more than she could country life. That hurt, but she'd rather that than the truth.
"Hope Junction," called the driver.
She dared to look up slightly, stealing a quick peek out the window to see if anything had changed. The welcome sign still read Population 1,199, although there'd been at least 1,500 residents when she'd lived here. The Shell servo still had a 1970s feel and the garden center on the corner looked more run-down than ever. The only sign of progress was a new café next to Apex Parkwith "About Coffee Time" plastered in big letters across the top of the building.
For a split second, Ellie smiled wistfully, recalling weekends spent in the park, kissing Flynn under the slide, kissing Flynn on the picnic table, kissing Flynn by the bridge, kissing Flynn behind the toilet block. No doubt today's teens would be peeved with the location of the new café and being forced to find alternative premises for canoodling.
"Aren't you getting off here, miss?"
The driver's question broke her reverie. She turned her head slightly. Yep, he was definitely talking to her, but with neither bitterness nor admiration in his voice. He obviously hadn't a clue who she was. Perhaps her tomboy disguise would work after all. Perhaps she'd be able to walk the short kilometer to Matilda's house, dump her things and get to the hospital without causing much of a stir.
If she were honest with herself, it wasn't running into locals that most scared her. It was just the one local, the resident who, despite still being a constant player in her thoughts, she was absolutely petrified to see. How could she ever face him after what had happened? If he ever deigned to speak to her again, to hear her outand she wouldn't blame him if he didn'twhat could she possibly say? Sorry wouldn't even begin to cut it.
Not taking any chances, Ellie leaped off the bus, swiped her rucksack and suitcase from the hold and, with eyes trained firmly on the cracked pavement, began jogging toward Matilda's cottage. Although it was longer, she took the back way, past the football oval and the swimming pool, avoiding the main street. Did Flynn still play football? She glanced at her watch, knowing if she hung around a couple more hoursand if the Hurricanes were playing a home gameshe'd find out. A shiver shot through her at the thought and she picked up her pace, all the more eager to get to her destination.
In all the years Ellie had been in Sydney, Matilda had visited faithfully every Christmas. And although Ellie was always invited to loads of high-society parties, there was no one she'd rather spend the holidays with than her warm, fun-loving godmother. Matilda had never once questioned Ellie's decision to leave Hope. She never mentioned Flynn, and although Ellie had been desperate on a zillion occasions to ask how he was doing, she'd always been too scared to inquire.
Flynn was always the best-looking guy at school, in the townhell, the world wouldn't have been an overstatement. Captain of the footy team, tall, strong but still a bit lanky, tanned to perfection. He had a grin that made you feel all warm and liquidy whenever he flashed it your way. It'd be unrealisticstupidto think that his heart had stayed true to her. Why would it? Lord knows there'd been enough girls waiting on the sidelines. He'd probably moved on quickly and found someone else, married someone else, maybe even had babies with someone else. Happy, settled down, in love. That would be bad, really bad. Ellie couldn't bear to think about it, much less to know, and had avoided finding out for a decade. Flynn Stuart Quartermaine was taboo. Someone Matilda never mentioned and someone Ellie never searched for. But now, now she'd have no choice. Now she'd have to face what he'd become. Whoever that was. Whoever it was with. She tried to console herself. Maybe he'd left town?