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  • Published: 6 August 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761342080
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $34.99

Love Unleashed

A fresh friends-to-lovers romcom from a dazzling new Australian talent

Extract

CHAPTER 1


1 July 2023

‘To Brynn Wallace: the future managing editor of The Paris Review!’

Jacq raises her glass in the air and clinks it against mine, half the contents sloshing out and pouring over our hands as the glasses connect. I look over at where Bridie has her iPhone raised, no doubt live-streaming to her 50,000 TikTok followers and I give her a little wave as I take a sip from my glass.

The party is thinning out now and soon it’ll just be the four of us: me, Jacq, Bridie, and Dotty, which is more along the lines of how I expected tonight to go. But Jacq was in charge of my send-off and she’s always had a flair for dramatic champagne toasts. Jacq is my oldest friend, and even though Bridie is my cousin—well, technically, second cousin—Jacq says she’s voluntarily known me for the longest and should therefore be known as my longest-lasting friend.

Pandering to my lifelong love of Ann M. Martin’s tween book series—The Baby-Sitters Club—Jacq has claimed the role of Kristy Thomas—the club’s president and the one who is the most organised. Dotty is fond of pointing out that Kristy is also the bossy, self-centred one, but that’s just because Dotty’s crabby she doesn’t get to be the president.

‘Also,’ Dotty said one night years ago when we were huddled in our favourite local hangout, Cardigan Bar at Sandgate, assigning ourselves BSC characters. ‘Kristy is the one who grew up to be a lesbian, so I’m obviously her.’

Anyways, Jacq has always been the boss of our group and she’s arranged every detail of my surprise going-away party, from having Aunty Barb chauffeur me and Bridie to her mum’s house at Samford, to secretly contacting my co-workers, uni friends, and tutors. I’d say she’s in her glory right now as host but there’s also a hint of red tinging her make-up-less face and she keeps tucking strands of her bleach blonde bob behind her ears, which I know she only does when she’s preoccupied with something.

It could be residual stress from organising this party, which I actually didn’t suspect at all. I was a bit annoyed when Aunty Barb drove Bridie and me in the opposite direction to Cardigan Bar and instead took the dark, winding country backroads out towards Samford. When we pulled up at Jacq’s mum’s place, it was obvious it was going to be more than a nice, quiet night of fancy cocktails with my three BFFs. Bridie turned around in the front seat and said, ‘Just so you know, none of this was my idea,’ making it clear that as always, Jacq had overruled everyone.

The guests yelled ‘Surprise!’ and someone thrust a glass of bubbles into my hand. Twinkling fairy lights and silver foil stars hung from the pergola roof, and the floating battery candles in the pool combined with the underwater lights made the water look warm and inviting despite the cool July night. Jacq had set up seating areas, each warmed by café-style gas heaters and over the night each spot filled with separate groups of people that I moved around, making sure I spoke to everyone. In the middle of everything was a long table covered in food, much of it homemade by Jacq. Despite my misgivings, I had to admit it was a lovely night.

After Jacq’s toast, my heart drops a little when I see the remaining stragglers show no sign of leaving.

I’m tired of having to rehash every detail of my story for people: how Mum and I went on a girls trip in Sydney to organise my US working holiday visa before the last semester of my Master’s, that she got sick and was taken to hospital while we were away, and was transferred home with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that gave her six months to live. I’m tired of filling in bits and pieces: how I took time off uni to be with her, my stepdad and half-brother Matty; that she fought and hung on for eight months instead of six; and that before she went to palliative care, she gave me a thick yellow envelope of travel documents and a list of tasks for me that she called ‘Brynn’s NYC Missions’. She’d done all the legwork, booked the flights, checked my visa was still valid after I’d missed my original departure date, and talked to my university about graduating mid-year. My first mission was to go back to uni in February, and the second was to get on a plane to New York in July.

There were a few people who couldn’t believe that I returned to uni just a few weeks after her funeral. But it’s what she wanted for me and that’s why, just six months later, I’m a newly graduated Master of Writing, Editing and Publishing, with a thesis on the impact of literary journals on the publishing industry. Mum didn’t want anything to stop me from heading off to try to secure the internship that I’ve dreamt about since I read The Paris Review’s famous ‘Art of Fiction’ interview with Toni Morrison in my first year of uni. As I read that piece all those years ago, I realised I could play a part in producing this sort of work: work where a Black woman’s words made a difference to an Aboriginal girl who’d been feeling out of place in books for a long time.

There are two intakes a year for my dream—fully paid—internship at The Paris Review, and in addition to getting ready to move, I’ve spent the last month perfecting my application for the first intake. All night, I’ve been fielding questions about what I’ll do if I don’t get the internship in the first round. I’ve choked back my nerves and explained that there are other literary journals, like n+1 and a hundred publishing companies in New York and if worse comes to worst, I’ll just find a job to pay the bills until the second intake at The Paris Review opens.

But it’s not these big things I’m worried about right now as the party continues. The later it gets, the more I think about how much packing I have left and if I’ve printed all my travel documents. It’s been hard to sleep in the lead-up to leaving, so with the added stress of lots of socialising—more than I’ve done since Mum got sick—my eyes feel dry, eyelids heavy. My whole body aches from standing up in the high shoes I’ve worn thinking I was going to be sitting on a cosy Cardigan Bar couch all night. I really need to get home.

On the other side of the deck, Jacq is boxing up a cupcake from the dwindling tower and handing it to one of my uni tutors. I head towards them, with the hopes that my saying goodbye will start a line of departures.

But on my way, Dotty intercepts with a wine bottle. The thought of flying for twenty-plus hours with a hangover pre-emptively turns my stomach, so I put my hand over the glass to stop her from topping it up.

‘Oi, don’t be like that, tid,’ she says turning the label towards me. Veuve Clicquot. ‘How often do you get to drink the good stuff like this?’ she says, wrestling my hand away to fill the glass. She flashes me her trademark mischievous grin, one that’s resulted in me waking up with many a hangover since we first met at the university guild bar as undergrads. ‘Come on, it’s your party. We’re not going to see you for a whole year.’ Dotty and I are so different: she’s tall and skinny, with short-cropped hair. Her version of dressing up for Jacq’s fancy party is wearing black jeans instead of blue ones and a button-up shirt that’s so big it billows over her small frame. She never wears make-up, but she’s one of the most beautiful girls I know.

‘And this is your song.’ Bridie runs over and pulls us into a clear space on the deck as Dua Lipa’s ‘Dance the Night’ comes on over the speakers. Someone turns it up, and despite the fact no one else is dancing, the two of them start jumping around to the music. Bridie knows all the moves from Barbie and it’s easy to imagine her as a Blak Barbie with her long silky brown hair bouncing around, her short pink party dress and towering silver shoes, both of which show off her toned legs. Next to her, Dotty sways from side to side, holding up the Veuve bottle in one hand and her glass in the other.

They’re right, this is my last night; we’ve got good champagne, and the song I’ve been blasting on Spotify for weeks. I take a sip from the drink and join in, screaming the words at my best friends and trying to follow Bridie’s dance moves before giving up and just jumping up and down until I’m sweaty and breathless.

‘So,’ Bridie says, grabbing my hand as the song ends, ‘is this good girl going to turn bad in the Big Apple?’

‘What?’ I push strands of my hair away and try to calm my heart that’s still racing in time to the music.

‘Oh, come on, cuz,’ she says. ‘All work and no play and all that. You need to make sure you sample all that New York has to offer.’ She waggles her eyebrows and my cheeks warm.

‘That’s not really my style,’ I reply. The only thing my sister cousin likes more than boys is dissecting everyone’s bedroom  escapades. ‘Plus, guys don’t really like fat chicks.’

She scowls at me and Dotty chokes on her drink with a growl. ‘One,’ Bridie says, ‘fat does not mean you’re not desirable, and two: you know dating is way different in America, and as a bonus, you don’t have to make sure you’re not related to every Blakfulla before you do the deed. You gotta put Scott behind you and the best way to do that is get some new budoo in ya.’

‘Bri . . .’ I start to protest and, as though she senses that the cousins are about to have a bust up on the dance floor, Dotty steps in and wraps her arm around my shoulder.

‘I can’t believe you’re going,’ she says, sipping the remaining champagne from her glass. ‘It feels like you’ve been talking about New York forever, and tomorrow you’ll be on your way.’

‘And, thanks to the time change,’ I say, ‘I’ll travel for twenty-something hours and arrive at basically the same time I left.’

‘You’re not mad, are you? About the party? We did try to tell Jacq that you wouldn’t want a full-on going-away party the night before your flight,’ she continues. ‘But she said you wouldn’t sleep anyway.’

‘I’m not mad,’ I say, meaning it. ‘It’s nice to see everyone before I go, and Jacq’s put in a lot of work organising all this.’

‘She has, even if she did spend hours confirming that I would tag her on any social media I posted,’ Bridie says, rolling her eyes.

‘She’s real determined, alright,’ I say. I don’t love that Jacq sometimes seems more interested in Bridie’s status as a social media influencer than she is in Bridie herself, but I respect her hustle with her party-planning business. ‘It doesn’t cost you anything to tag her in a few posts.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Bridie says. ‘I’m going to miss you being the voice of reason.’ She pulls me into a hug and I hold her tight. For just a moment, my resolve waivers. Am I making a terrible mistake abandoning my BFFs and Brisbane for one of the biggest cities in the world where I don’t know anyone?

But then, as we pull away, I see Jacq’s husband, Tim, and another guy walking out through the house and onto the deck.

Dotty follows my gaze and I feel her body tense. ‘Is that . . .?’

‘Scott,’ I say, my voice turning to a whisper.

‘Well, speak of the fuckin’ white devil,’ Bridie says, shaking her head.

‘Did you know about this?’ I ask as my heart begins to thump. Scott spots me and gives a sheepish grin.

‘No, babe, I promise,’ Bridie says, squeezing my hand. I’m hyper aware that I’m sweating. Not just where our hands are touching, but it’s rolling down my temples and beading on my lip. The orange chiffon of my perfect party dress is damp and hot, the heaters are warming the space too much. My head swims and I feel the telltale tightening of my chest that means an asthma attack is threatening.

Time seems to warp and suddenly, he’s in front of me and I’m breathing hard, still gripping Bridie’s hand on one side and leaning into Dotty on the other.

Bridie and Dotty don’t know everything that happened between me and Scott. They know things started to cool off when Mum got sick and that I officially broke up with him over text eight months later when he didn’t come to her funeral. Jacq on the other hand was witness to three years of Scott slowly taking over my life, manipulating my feelings, and making nasty comments about my weight.

‘Hi Princess,’ Scott says. ‘Can we talk?’ His head is bowed, and he looks at me through his curtain of dark blond hair that always slips forward. I don’t recognise his outfit: black dress pants and a white button-down like he’s dressed for a job interview, not a going-away party. He offers me roses but I don’t take them.

It’s cliché but my mind plays a bunch of moments from our relationship: Scott crying because I told him I had an assignment and couldn’t go out. I feel the shame and humiliation from a beach holiday with Jacq and Tim when he told me to put a t-shirt on over my bathers. ‘Urgh, no one should have to see that,’ he said while Jacq looked away. I see him crying in protest when I told him I needed to spend more time helping Chris with Matty, and the way that he texted me over and over when he didn’t hear from me for days because I was with my mum in her last days. Mum held me in her hospital bed while my phone buzzed out of control in my pocket and I sobbed and sobbed, not only because I was losing her, but because I’d let Scott take me away from her while she wasn’t well, not realising how little time she and I had left. I’d never get back any of those family movie nights, dinners, and road trips he’d made me skip. I lost a million tiny, special, precious moments of my life being with him, and it took losing my mum to realise it.

I try to shake the memories away and focus on how close I am to putting the last few years behind me and moving into the future that Mum and I had planned.

‘This is my going-away party,’ I say.

‘I know,’ he replies. ‘I was invited.’

Jacq comes running over grinning, but there’s something panicked in her eyes. ‘How romantic,’ she coos. ‘You should film this, B, it’ll make great content.’ She looks at Bridie, whose phone stays resolutely in her pocket.

On the other side of the deck, I see my few remaining workmates and uni friends turning around and watching, curious. Dotty sees them looking too and springs into action. She leaps from my side to turn the music off and the main patio lights on, breaking the party atmosphere in the same harsh way that nightclubs shut out patrons at the end of the night.

‘This is my going-away party,’ I repeat as Dotty preps people to leave. ‘I’ve got to say goodbye to everyone.’

‘I’ll wait,’ he says.

I wish you wouldn’t, I think.

The remaining goodbyes are too quick and every time I glance back, I can see Scott—still with his ridiculous bunch of roses— and Bridie looking as though she’s poised and ready to strike. Dotty hovers protectively behind me, and Jacq and Tim stand next to Scott. Jacq is chattering away, either oblivious to the atmo sphere or trying to cover it up.

When the last workmate has been hugged, I roll out my tense muscles and step back into the group.

Scott proffers the roses, but I ignore him and turn to Jacq. ‘Is this why you threw me a party?’

‘Of course not,’ she says, a bit too defensively.

‘Jacq,’ I say, and I wish I sounded firm, but my voice comes out in a squeak.

She raises her hands as if to calm me down. Dotty takes a step forward and grabs my hand and gives it a little squeeze, a gesture that’s more grounding than Jacq’s, but still, my heart races.

‘With everything that happened with your mum,’ Jacq says, ‘you two never got to, you know, talk. Brynn, I just didn’t want you to get on the plane without having a chance to sort things out. So you know where you both stand. You can’t end a three-year relationship with a text message—that’s not fair on Scott.’

‘Not fair on Scott?’ My eyes begin to prickle. ‘What about me? You heard how he used to talk to me.’ My voice wobbles and I see Bridie shoot Dotty a glance.

‘You have to admit, Brynn, you can be a little sensitive.’

Hot tears begin to pour down my cheeks.

‘He didn’t go to Aunty’s funeral. I don’t think that’s Brynn being sensitive,’ Dotty says, and I love her so much in that moment because even though there were a million reasons why Scott and I broke up—not one of which I’d told her about—that one slight is enough for her to understand why we’re not together anymore.

Bridie, Dotty, and I weren’t seeing much of each other when things got real bad with Scott. Even though Bridie is my cousin, I’d been too shame to tell them everything. But Jacq was there. Tim is Scott’s best mate and that meant Jacq, by extension, was the only one of my friends who Scott never whinged about. Jacq saw the way he treated to me. She watched him ordering food for me in restaurants, heard him insult my weight, criticise my choice of study, claiming it wouldn’t give me a ‘real’ job. She heard his relentless digs at me for living at home in my twenties. And Jacq was sitting right next to me when Scott suggested I join Weight Watchers. She’d seen him give me a gym membership for a  Valentine’s gift because he didn’t think I needed chocolates or a dinner out.

‘I didn’t know I was invited to the funeral,’ Scott says, lowering the hand with the roses so the flowers’ heads brush against the pale brown wood of the deck.

I might be imagining it, but it seems to me he’s fighting to keep his tone even, to keep the calm. In front of Dotty and Bridie, he doesn’t want to show the detached spite he always used with me. My stomach roils and my face burns.

‘You don’t need an invitation to a funeral, mate,’ Dotty says.

I see his Adam’s apple work itself up and down and I realise he’s nervous. Something inside me clicks, but I don’t have time to connect the dots before he speaks again.

‘Well, I didn’t know that,’ he says. ‘I don’t know how you people do funerals and stuff.’

Beside me, Bridie tenses. ‘You people? You mean us Aboriginals?’ she spits, and I hear the disgust in her voice. ‘Fuck’s sake, mate, you dated Brynn for how long? Three years? And you still can’t get it fuckin’ right?’

‘Come on now,’ Jacq says. ‘Let’s calm down, everyone. Why don’t me, Tim and the girls start packing the party up so you two can talk without us interfering.’

I look at Scott, who already has tears glistening in his eyes. I know how any sort of conversation will go with him and it’s not the way I want to spend my last night here.

‘Brynn?’ Jacq says, the odd smile back on her face.

The old Brynn would have acquiesced to keep the peace. She would have brushed her friends’ concern aside and gone into Jacq’s childhood bedroom with Scott. She would have sat on the bed while he knelt on the floor, tugging at her legs and crying about how much she hurt him when she didn’t explain things; about how angry and quick to judge her friends were. The old Brynn would have hugged him and given in. The old Brynn would not have gotten on a plane and moved to New York City because the old Brynn knew there’d be consequences if she didn’t obey, so she always did exactly as Scott wanted.

I am not the old Brynn anymore. Or at least I’m trying not to be.

I take a deep breath and look Jacq straight in the eye. ‘Thank you for throwing this party,’ I say, and I see her posture relax. ‘But,’ I continue, ‘you are the only one who knew how Scott treated me. I will never forgive you for this.’

I turn and walk across the deck, grab my handbag from the kitchen, and march out the front door without looking back.

The new Brynn might know how to stand up up to people, but she doesn’t actually know what she’s going to do when she leaves the house. It’s cold outside, and the change in temperature from the gas heaters to the sharp night air is a shock to my sensitive lungs.

Samford is not too far from the suburbs, but the house blocks are pretty rural and Jacq’s mum lives at the top of a hill with an unsealed, winding gravel driveway leading down to a dark country road. Earlier that night, thinking I was going to Cardigan Bar, where I’d only have to walk from the house to the taxi, I’d squeezed my size nine feet into a pair of Mum’s towering, strappy size eight stilettos in a royal blue that really popped against the orange of my dress.

The shoes are pretty, but as soon as I step off the paved parking area outside the house, the spikey heels sink straight into the gravel and I stumble. I manage to right myself before I fall, and then, on tiptoes, take a few more steps forward. But very quickly, I realise I’m risking a broken ankle if I go any further.

I’m contemplating sitting on the ground to take them off and going the rest of the way in bare feet when footsteps crunch on the gravel. Scott. Panicked, I dive behind a big gum tree, silently asking the Ancestors to tell any snakes to clear out.

As I put my hands out to balance, my handbag slips off my shoulder and I cringe at the sound of all my things falling out. I really need to learn to do the zipper up properly.

The footsteps get closer, and the cold mixed with adrenalin from the fight and the fear of another confrontation make my chest tighten. The more I try to control my breathing, the tighter everything gets, until I drop to my knees, hoping that my asthma puffer wasn’t one of the things that fell out of my bag.

‘Cooee,’ comes a smooth call. It’s Bridie.

‘Here, cuz,’ I wheeze. ‘I dropped my puffer.’

She dives into the bush next to me. ‘Christ, sib. Have you forgotten you’re an urban Blakfulla? Too many bloody spiders in that there scrub for you.’

I don’t have enough breath to answer her and pat my chest. She nods and scrambles around in the brush to collect my bag and the contents. Finally, she hands me the blue inhaler and I take three deep puffs, instantly feeling the tightness ease.

‘Thanks.’ I brush my hands through my hair and hope I wasn’t in the bush long enough for any bugs to land.

‘What you think you’re doing then? Walking back to Brisbane in your mum’s stilettos?’ she jokes, unfazed by my asthma. She’s dealt with me having much worse attacks than that.

‘Yeah, well, walking out was a bit of an impulse decision,’ I admit, taking my bag off her and tucking the inhaler into the front pocket.

‘I could tell. Not to worry. Mum went to the Samford pub for tea, and I just texted her. She’s on her way to get us now.’

‘What about . . .’ I nod my head in the direction of the house.

‘Scott’s staying here tonight. Jacq told us she had a lift home for you sorted, but it turns out she’d thought the two of you would reconcile and she’s got the spare room set up.’

‘No,’ I say, eyes widening. ‘She did not think that . . .’

‘Apparently so.’

‘Fuck’s sake,’ I say. ‘What about Dotty?’

‘I’m here,’ comes Dotty’s voice from the top of the drive.

Bridie helps me back up the couple of metres of gravel to her. As we balance ourselves on the steep driveway they pull me into a group hug, and even though neither asks for more of the story, I can practically feel the questions whirring around inside their heads. But filling in the gaps about how ghosting Scott was the only way I felt like I could get away from him would take more time than we’ve got, and I can already see the headlights of Aunty’s car moving towards us.

I hug Dotty goodbye, knowing she’ll have already called an Uber to take her home to Chermside.

‘Call any time,’ she says. ‘When you’re ready to talk about the rest of what went on with that fuckwit, we’ll be here to listen.’ She kisses me on the cheek. I squeeze her close, sad to be leaving but so grateful that I still have her friendship after the last few years.

Then me and Bridie climb into Aunty Barb’s Corolla. This time Bridie sits in the back with me and I lay my head on her shoulder. It’s quiet and Aunty Barb only speaks a little to tell us about steak and chips she ordered for tea and the Keno she didn’t play. Otherwise, I just rest against the warmth of Bridie.

‘You’re amazing and I’m so proud of you,’ she says as we get close to my house. ‘She is proud of you too, sis, I know it.’

Tears prickle in my eyes and I pull Bridie into an awkward sideways hug.

‘Just remember, girls,’ Aunty says as she pulls up out the front of my place, ‘it’s not goodbye forever. It’ll go by in a flash.’

She gets out and gives me a hug. Her body is soft and she smells of the same Jovan White Musk perfume that Mum always wore. It’s as close as to a hug with Mum as I’ll get. ‘Ancestors keep you, precious girl,’ she says, kissing me on the cheek. ‘Don’t you forget where you come from, ay?’

‘I won’t, Aunty, promise.’

I turn back to Bridie, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t told you everything,’ I say. ‘I should have . . .’

‘You haven’t done anything wrong, sis,’ she says. ‘Don’t worry about us, we’ll sort it. And you can call me anytime to talk about anything, okay? Or not . . . it’s up to you.’

I nod. ‘Don’t take it out on Jacq, ay? This thing, it’s between me and her.’

‘Nah, fuck that for a joke,’ she replies as she opens the Corolla’s passenger door. ‘That was a dirty-dog move she made and I’m done with her shit. As for you – in a year I expect you to be a deadly editor with a fancy wardrobe and a long tale to tell me about all the handsome fullas you’ve dated, ay?’

Despite myself, I laugh. ‘Bye, sis, love you.’

‘You too, tid,’ she says, and slams the door. I watch as the Corolla drives down the street and turns off, and then look at my watch. T minus six hours.


Love Unleashed Melanie Saward

'The romcom the Australian literary landscape has been waiting for.' Anita Heiss

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