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Going back to Wirralong after fourteen years was never meant to be a sentimental journey. Polly Martin was entirely focused on her mission. She’d assessed her scheme from every angle and her strategy was precisely planned. Already, she had messaged Seth Ramsay to arrange a meeting time, and as soon as she reached Wirralong’s outskirts she would send him another text to confirm.
Once Polly met with Seth, she would pose pertinent questions to check that her research was correct and then she would cut straight to the chase. She would explain exactly what she needed from him and the encounter would be as businesslike as possible. No messy emotions.
Seth would understand. His easygoing nature was one of the main reasons Polly had chosen him.
And now, as her VW Golf hummed along the bitumen road that wound through gum tree–studded hills, offering occasional glimpses of distant plains, Polly was confident and relaxed. She’d been living in Melbourne for over a decade, enjoying a vibrant, fast-paced, city lifestyle, and she had no room for nostalgia about returning to the small, sleepy, country town where she’d spent her high-school years.
Until she was confronted by an unexpectedly familiar vista.
Wham. Polly had totally forgotten how that view suddenly appeared after the final bend. But there it was—without warning—the plains spreading beneath her and, settled in their midst, Wirralong, its iron rooftops shimmering in the afternoon sun.
Even from this distance, Polly could pinpoint landmarks she’d almost forgotten. She could see the high school and the sporting fields, the old-fashioned two-storey timber pub, the main street running straight down the town’s centre. Then, stretching on either side from this, straight rows of streets with simple country cottages. An entire little town was nestled down there, surrounded by sprawling paddocks that stretched forever to the far blue hills.
In fourteen years, the scene had barely changed. Which was perhaps why a lump formed in Polly’s throat, swelling quickly to uncomfortable brick-like proportions. A beat later, her vision grew blurry, which was crazy.
Grabbing the first chance to pull off the road, Polly skidded to a reckless halt, her car’s tyres sending up clouds of dust. Right. Okay. Time to get a grip. Fast.
Except that Polly could still see that view of Wirralong, now made slightly misty by her tears and prettily framed by speckled trunks and the drooping, khaki leaves of gum trees. And she was remembering. So much.
It was as if the lid she’d kept on her Wirralong memories had suddenly sprung open like a jack-in-the-box. She was remembering the little white house behind the hedge, where she and her dad had lived so happily—just the two of them. The Commonwealth Bank in the main street where her dad had been the manager. And Seth’s parents’ service station on the corner, where she and her good mate had spent so much time after school.
Barely remembered scents and tastes filled her senses now as well. The smell of petrol from the many fuel tanks that she and Seth had filled, the tongue-tingling raspberry ripple ice cream, served by Seth’s mum on hot summer afternoons. Chlorine in the local swimming pool, the sweet scent of newly harvested hay, the aroma of chops grilling on her dad’s backyard barbecue.
So what? she asked herself angrily.
Anyone would think she’d spent the past fourteen years hankering for the uncomplicated simplicity of those days. Which she hadn’t. And, okay, the memories might have come flooding back now, but there was no need to get sentimental.
Polly kept a sensible supply of tissues in her glove box and she hauled out a handful, lifted her specs, and swiped at her eyes. She also checked on her reflection in the rear-vision mirror, glad she hadn’t bothered with mascara. With the tears sorted, she helped herself to a few restorative sips from her water bottle. In a minute or two she’d be over that crazy ‘moment’ and more or less back to normal.
Hopefully, she’d be totally composed and calm now, when she finally arrived in Wirralong. And came face to face with Seth.
Thinking of Seth Ramsay—actually, Polly had been thinking of little else during the journey, or for the past few weeks, if she was honest—she picked up her phone.
She was dead nervous about the massive request she planned to put to her old schoolmate. But now was as good a time as any to text him and let him know she’d arrived and would be on time for their meeting this evening.
When Seth had agreed to meet her, he’d suggested they do so over dinner at a restaurant Polly had never heard of. She’d checked it out on the internet and it looked rather swanky for a little bush town. She’d worried that their meeting would feel too much like a date.
No way was this a date. Polly was determined to keep their conversation as businesslike as possible, and she would insist on paying for Seth’s meal. After all, if everything went well tonight, he’d be doing her a huge favour in the very near future.
When the ping of a private text message sounded on Seth’s phone, he was on his back, lying on a trolley under a jacked-up SUV. He was focused on the vehicle’s innards, changing the oil after replacing the filter and although he guessed the caller might be Polly, he kept on with the task at hand. There was no rush. He would answer when this job was done.
Of course, Seth couldn’t help being intrigued by Polly’s sudden return to Wirralong. He had no idea why she’d be coming back after all this time, and he had to wonder why she had been asking questions about his relationship status—he’d heard as much from LeeAnne, who ran the store attached to his garage.
But why would Polly give two hoots about his current love life, said love life being just fine, as far as Seth was concerned? He and Polly had only ever been schoolmates. The best of mates during those years, admittedly, but Polly had never been his girlfriend.
Back in their high-school days, Polly’s father had been manager of the Commonwealth Bank, which was just a few doors away from the service station and garage that Seth’s parents owned. At the end of the school day, when most of the kids from Wirralong High caught the buses home to their farms in the surrounding districts, Seth and Polly had been ‘townies’, staying behind.
Most afternoons they’d hung out together after school, serving petrol, washing windscreens, or doing their homework in the flat at the back of the Ramsay’s store.
But despite all the time they’d spent together, Seth had barely made a move on Polly. Sure he’d thought about it plenty—but Polly had warned him quite decisively not to get romantic.
‘Don’t spoil it,’ she’d implored him that one time after the senior formal, when they’d found themselves alone and had both gone a little wild. All night they’d been dancing together, touching, smiling, flirting. Polly had worn a beautiful silvery dress that clung to her and had driven Seth several versions of crazy. In the darkness he’d kissed her, had slipped a silver shoestring strap from her shoulder, and he’d come so close to losing control.
Even now, he could remember the disquieting emotion in Polly’s bright blue eyes—he’d never been sure if it was fear or disgust he’d seen in the moonlight—but it had certainly stopped him in his tracks.
‘Don’t spoil our friendship, Seth.’
It was a hard call and had made no sense to him, but he hadn’t pushed the matter. Later, after Polly left for Melbourne, they’d kept in touch for a couple of years—the occasional phone call or email—but it hadn’t been long before Polly was totally caught up in her new life, with her new studies and her new friends and her grumbles over her father’s new wife. It was pretty clear she and Seth no longer had much in common, so it was more or less a given that they’d drifted apart.
Such a surprise it was, now, after fourteen years, that Polly wanted to meet up with him again. Seth was sure it was just a whim, a burst of curiosity for old times’ sake, but talk about out of the blue.
Polly settled on a simple, navy midi dress for her dinner meeting. From the outset, she needed to send the right message to Seth and this dress was smart, with short sleeves, high neck and a slightly gathered skirt that should ensure that it wasn’t in any way flirtatious.
She thought about pinning up her hair, but decided to leave it hanging in its uncomplicated jaw-length bob. She didn’t bother with contact lenses either, but wore her specs, black rimmed to match her straight black hair. Seth was used to her wearing glasses. She’d worn them all through high school.
Okay. A final check and Polly was happy enough with her reflection in the motel’s mirror. She reckoned she’d hit the right note for this evening, a balance between business and recreation, but she wished she didn’t look so nervous.
The restaurant was in walking distance of her motel and dusk lingered as she set out along the footpath. The sky was bathed in pinks and golds, while her sensibly medium heels clipped out her progress along the concrete. Deep breaths. Stay calm.
She’d almost reached her destination when she realised that Seth was waiting for her at the restaurant’s front entrance. He’d been standing in the shadow of shrubbery, but now he stepped forward.
Gosh, she’d forgotten how tall he was. Had he kept growing after high school? And his shoulders seemed much broader than she remembered. His thick chestnut hair was the same, though, still carrying a slight wave that couldn’t be tamed. But his jaw carried the hint of a shadow that made him look way more manly than she remembered from their schooldays.
He was wearing a white shirt with long sleeves rolled back, pale chinos and elastic-sided boots. Typical, conservative, country-style clothes, which were exactly what Polly might have expected. And yet, she hadn’t expected these clothes to be quite so arresting, and she felt shy and stupidly nervous, especially when Seth took his time, letting his gaze travel over her.
She had to take another deep breath before she could speak. ‘Hi, Seth. Good to see you.’ Trying for a smile that she hoped didn’t look too forced, she stepped forward and lifted her face for an exchange of polite cheek kisses.
Luckily, Seth bent down to meet her, so Polly didn’t have to get onto tiptoes and risk losing her balance. The greeting achieved without unnecessary touching, she stepped back quickly, slightly breathless. Seth was smiling. He looked way more relaxed than Polly felt and his warm hazel eyes seemed to sparkle, almost as if he found their meeting amusing.
‘It’s been a long time,’ he said.
Polly nodded. ‘Ages.’
‘You look very well.’
‘Yes, I’m really well, thanks.’ She didn’t like to comment on his appearance. ‘How—how are you?’
‘Yep, I’m well too, thank you.’
‘And your family? Your sister and your parents?’
‘They’re great. Mandy’s married and living in Sydney. She had a baby last year. A boy, Archie. And my folks are retired these days. They’ve moved to the coast and left me with the business.’
‘And you’re enjoying that?’
‘Sure.’ After a beat, Seth said, ‘I was very sorry to hear about your father’s passing. I’m afraid I only learned about it recently.’
Polly acknowledged his sympathy with a nod, but she needed to take another deep breath. Any mention of her dad’s sudden heart attack was still painful and she didn’t like to dwell on it—not in public at any rate. She looked towards the restaurant—all glass walls and bright lights and swathes of timber flooring. ‘I was thinking the town hadn’t changed, but this place is very swish.’
‘Yeah, it’s great, isn’t it? We have a few excellent eateries around Wirralong these days.’ Moving aside, Seth indicated that they should head up the stepping-stone path. Polly joined him, walking carefully.
‘So, what’s brought you back?’ he asked.
Polly gulped. It was a totally reasonable question, but there was no way she could explain her situation quickly, certainly not here, outside, before they were even seated. She flashed a quick smile that she hoped was reassuring. ‘It’s a little complicated, but don’t worry. I’ll tell you all about it.’ And then she tried to crack a joke, although jokes had never been her forte. ‘But I promise I haven’t come here to sell you anything.’
Obligingly, Seth chuckled.
End of Excerpt