Authors: Lisa Ireland
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Although born and bred in the city of Melbourne, Lisa has always been a country girl at heart. As a horse-mad teen she read countless books about girls and their ponies and dreamed of a life on a horse stud, far away from her suburban home. After completing a teaching degree, Lisa finally got to realise her dream of a life in the country when she took up a position in a rural school. A flood, a fire, and several encounters with snakes taught her that life on the land wasn't all fluffy sheep and home-baked scones! But she wasn't put off. She loved every minute of life in her new home.
After moving back to the city Lisa's appreciation for all things rural didn't wane. She took to jotting down stories of her life in the bush so she would have a reminder of her time there. Eventually she realised that making up stories was much more fun than sticking to the facts.
Lisa now lives in a small coastal town with her husband, their three sons, and two very spoiled dogs, Millie and Lulu. When she's not writing or reading she spends her time walking her dogs along the beach, pretending to watch her husband surf, drinking copious amounts of coffee at a local cafÃ©, and cheering on the Mighty Cats at Simonds Stadium.
For Evelyn Faye with love xx
Perhaps wedge heels weren't the wisest choice.
Johanna Morgan wobbled her way across the gravel car park, towards the ring of cars on the perimeter of Linden Gully's football ground. She sucked in a deep breath and tried to prepare herself to go into the fray.
This humble oval held so many memories of her teenage triumphs and tragedies. She'd experienced her first kiss in the clump of cypress pines behind the old timber scoreboard and her first heartbreak in the same location a week later. It was such a long time ago now, but today she felt every bit the awkward teenager she thought she'd left behind.
A roar went up and car horns began to sound. Obviously the Lions had scored a goal. Now was as good a time as any to make her entrance into the crowd.
By New York standards this barely qualified as a gathering, let alone a crowd. But she wasn't in New York now. She was back on Australian soil.
Butterflies swirled in her stomach. A warm reception was probably too much to hope for. She'd never truly belonged here. Almost every minute of her childhood had been spent dreaming of somewhere else. Now she was returning as an outsider. A deserter.
It was bad enough that she was Katherine Morgan's daughter â her mother's condescending attitude had done nothing to endear her to the town â but Jo's refusal to settle for a life in Linden Gully, coupled with her recent publishing success and the fact that she was supposedly engaged to a famous American actor, would only reinforce the popular view that she was a stuck-up snob. Tall-poppy syndrome was alive and well in Linden Gully. At least it had been seven years ago.
Jo picked her way towards the boundary fence, eyes down, doing her best to avoid puddles. Despite the chill in the air her palms were sweating. She silently chastised herself for caring. She was an adult, dammit. She didn't owe anyone any explanations.
That was all well and good, but she wished the shy sixteen-year-old inside her would get the message.
âOi! Don't think you're getting away with it that easily,' a gruff voice accused her from behind.
âI'm sorry?' She swung around, wondering what social faux pas she had committed.
âA kiss is the current entry price for out-of-towners.' Steph's dad stepped forward and held out his arms to her.
Jo grinned. âI reckon that's a pretty high price, Mick.' She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
âDidn't expect you for weeks yet, Jo.'
âI know. Thought I'd surprise Steph.'
âGood to see you home, love. Steph'll be thrilled. And maybe you can settle my missus down a bit now you're here. She's been running around like a headless chook over this flippin' wedding. I think she's driving Steph crazy.'
Jo laughed. Jenny Fielding had been anticipating her only daughter's wedding for as long as Jo could remember. âIs she here? Steph, I mean.'
Mick nodded towards the other side of the oval. âOver near the goals, love. She'll be excited to see you.'
The siren sounded to signal half time and the spectators clapped and cheered as the players made their way from the field. Jo squinted into the winter sun and eventually spotted Steph sitting on the bonnet of a large pick-up â no, a large
. Mustn't let the locals catch her using Americanisms like âpick-up truck'. She'd never hear the end of it.
There was a guy standing in front of the ute, a well-built specimen from the looks of it. Hard to tell who it was from here.
It wasn't Nate, Steph's soon-to-be-husband. Nate was the Lions' star full-back, and she had just seen him making his way into the club rooms with his teammates for the coach's half-time address.
It was a shame Steph wasn't alone, but she could hardly expect a private reunion at such a public place. Jo felt the stares following her as she made her way across the ground. Murmurs of recognition trailed behind her and she noticed a couple of familiar faces turning in her direction. A few people actually pointed. She smiled and waved. No point aggravating the situation. News of her return would soon be spreading around the ground like wildfire.
At least she knew there was one person in town who would be pleased to see her. She couldn't wait to see the look of surprise on her best friend's face. Of course Steph was expecting to see her soon; she was to be chief bridesmaid, after all. But the wedding was a full three weeks away and Jo had intended to fly in just a couple of days before the big event.
Arriving early meant that she could be a proper bridesmaid and organise things that Steph would publicly roll her eyes at but secretly love, like an old-fashioned bridal shower and a huge hen's night.
Jo was here to be the perfect maid of honour. At least that was the story she'd concocted to explain her early arrival, and she'd rehearsed it so much in her head that even she was beginning to believe that her hasty departure from New York had everything do with being a good bridesmaid and nothing to do with being a runaway bride-to-be.
As she walked towards the southern end of the oval, she could see Steph craning her neck, trying to get a look at the outsider approaching her. Jo grinned as recognition slowly dawned on her friend's face and she let out an ear-piercing squeal as she slid off the car's bonnet. âOh my god! Jo, is it really you?' Steph pushed aside Hot Guy and ran towards her.
Jo stomach dropped. That was no generic guy.
It was him.
Ryan Galloway was staring right back at her.
Ryan couldn't believe his eyes.
It was Jo.
Here at the footy ground.
Of course he'd known she was coming home for the wedding. He'd known that he would have to sit next to her at the bridal table, that he'd have to make small talk with her and pretend that nothing was wrong. Pretend that nothing had ever happened between them and that he didn't still think about her. Every. Single. Day.
But he hadn't expected to see her here today.
He wasn't prepared for this. What on earth could he say to her? Was he just supposed to smile like a chump while she told him all about her fabulous, successful life? Was he expected to be thrilled that she'd found a new love, some Hollywood pretty-boy who'd probably never done a day's work in his life and yet could afford to give her everything she could possibly dream of?
In the movies the good guys always won, but Ryan had learned the hard way that life wasn't always fair.
When Nate had told him Steph had asked Joey to be bridesmaid, he'd figured she wouldn't come. He knew better than most how much she hated this town, and not without cause, he'd admit that much. Now that she was a big celebrity he'd presumed she'd find a reason to stay away.
But when Nate insisted she was coming, flying in for a whirlwind visit, he'd decided he would just have to suck it up. Be polite for a few days and avoid her as much as possible. How hard could it be?
He had it all worked out. At the wedding he'd be cool and suave, show her that he was fine without her. Show that his broken heart had mended without any scars. To prove the point maybe he'd ask Laura Baxter to the wedding. Laura was a pretty woman, and good company. She might not be an international celebrity and maybe she talked a little too much, but she liked him just the way he was, and that was more than he could say for Miss High and Mighty over there. Then again, he didn't want to give Laura any false hope. They'd dated a few times, but she wasn't the woman for him. The wedding was going to be hard enough without creating more problems for himself.
The last time he'd seen Joey he'd offered her his heart in the form of a tiny diamond engagement ring he'd spent over a year saving for. She cried and he'd thought they were tears of joy, but he was mistaken. She'd left the next day, never to return.
God, she really was just metres away, laughing with Steph and looking like a movie star. In some ways she hadn't changed too much. The same long honey-blonde hair fell down over her shoulders and she was twirling it around her index finger, the way she always did when she was nervous. But she was thinner and seemed taller than the petite girl he remembered. Maybe it was those stupid high heels she was wearing.
New York had certainly put its stamp on her. The girl he knew and loved would never have turned up to the footy in that get-up. Look at her, with those figure-hugging jeans, ridiculous shoes and bloody enormous sunglasses. And what was with that floppy hat? Did she realise this was a football game, not some fancy-pants art exhibition?
And she was wearing another man's ring â a gigantic diamond â on her finger.
She might be back in Linden Gully but she wasn't his Joey anymore.
There was no time to react. Jo's body seemed rooted to the spot, unwilling to co-operate with her brain's instinct to turn and run.
Steph enveloped her in a bear hug. âIt's so great to see you. I can't believe you're here. Hey, are you okay? You look a little pale.'
âJust jetlagged, that's all. I flew into Melbourne at six this morning and then got on the bus to here.' Jo forced herself to smile. âIt's good to be home.'
âSo did you come straight here? Or have you already been home to Yarrapinga?'
âI came to find you before I did anything else. I jumped off the bus, left my bags at the pub and hitched a ride over here with Helen Thompson. She was heading in to Bellington and dropped me off on her way.'