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  • Published: 3 October 2023
  • ISBN: 9781761345128
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $22.99

Meant To Be

A spicy small-town, second-chance romance

Extract

As I stroll into town, I feel like I’ve been transported back in time.

It doesn’t take long to get to the café. I haven’t been out and about since I got home, but now that my bruises have faded and I’m feeling semi-sane again, I think it’s time to venture out into the real world.

It’s busy – as expected, considering there are few other options around here. The café is buzzing with voices, the clattering of uten­sils, and furniture scraping against the faded lino flooring. There’s a collective intake of breath when I enter, the bell ringing like a foghorn announcement. With my tight-fitting top and mini skirt, I stand out like a sore thumb. My platinum hair shining under the lights is like a neon sign flashing above my head declaring I don’t belong here.

The server behind the counter not-so-subtly eyes me up and down, a look of distaste on her puffy face. Her ginger hair piled on top of her head looks rigid, as if it hasn’t changed from that style in months.

‘Visiting?’ She chews gum obnoxiously. Bits of spit splatter onto the counter. ‘We don’t get too many visitors here. Not enough touristy things to do.’ She says the word ‘touristy’ like it’s a curse. She shakes her head as if annoyed, even though I haven’t said any­thing yet.

‘You don’t remember me?’ I ask.

It took a moment for me to realise it’s Joanne Burnett under the puffy cheeks and dark freckles. She’s changed a lot since we last knew each other. She babysat me once. I bit her thumb and made her cry. She was twelve years older than me. It scored me some cool points back in the day.

She offers me a confused expression, tilting her head. ‘We’ve met before?’

‘Josie?’ I offer. ‘Josie Mayor?’

‘Josephine!’ she half-shrieks, gaining even more attention. ‘I didn’t . . . you look . . . wow,’ she concludes, dumbfounded. ‘Your hair . . . and your . . .’ I don’t know what body part she’s referring to next. Everything, probably.

‘Josie, yeah,’ I correct.

‘Wow.’ She shakes her head. ‘You’re back?’

‘I guess so, yeah.’

‘Staying with the folks?’ She leans against the counter. I notice she has little tattoos dotted up her left arm in all different shapes and patterns. Tattoos were very taboo here once, so I got at least three inked across my skin within the first year of having left this place behind.

‘Yeah. For now.’

‘What have you been up to?’

‘A lot.’

She pauses at my dull response, waiting for more, before quickly realising that’s all I am going to say.

‘I married Angus,’ she announces. ‘You remember him?’

Of course you did. In Fern Grove, you marry the first person you date because no one ever leaves.

‘Yes, Angus. I remember. You’ve been together for a long time.’

‘Got four little rugrats now too!’

‘Four? Jesus.’ I raise my eyebrows.

She looks offended for a moment at my tone, but it fades quickly.

‘Well, anyway, great to see you.’ She beams, and I’m a little surprised at that. I didn’t think anyone would say those words to me, especially not the first time they see that I’ve returned. Four years might seem like a lifetime, but in the world of small-town scandal, it’s not long. No one would have forgotten what hap­pened. And why I left. ‘What can I get for you?’

The shop fills a little more while I wait for my coffee. I lounge against the counter and let my eyes roam over the pastries in the cabinet. It’s a pathetic display compared to what I’m used to, and I feel sad about all the great restaurants and bars I no longer have access to. I watch as a fly enters through the crack in the door and lands on one of the brownies. I cringe, turning away from it. I’m definitely not in the city.

Two girls I remember from school notice me. Or rather, I notice them gawking at me. Their necks are bent, mouths whis­pering furiously, another girl is craning to get a better look. Two boys are also sitting at the table, their backs to me.

I exhale, turning back to the cabinet. The fly has moved to one of the blueberry muffins. I had been thinking about ordering one and now quickly dismiss the thought.

‘Is that really you?’

Hearing his voice causes my heart to drop into my stomach. Slowly, I turn.

Shock registers on his face when our eyes meet. His eyes travel over me quickly and hungrily, drinking in every detail, making my skin flare as if I were seventeen again.

Nicholas Schneider. High school sweetheart. Heartthrob. My first boyfriend.

God. He is still handsome. Very, very handsome.

His skin is darker now, with freckles painted across his nose. His hair is lighter, sun-bleached, and clipped short. Maybe a lit­tle too short. His warm, leaf-green eyes are still as gentle and as gorgeous as ever.

I remember pining after him. The flush deepens. Heat rises up my neck, and I smile charmingly, hoping I appear more aloof than I feel.

‘Nick. Hi. Been a while.’

He’s speechless, eyes still searching. The stunned expression hasn’t left his face. I must seem like a ghost. I feel like one. It’s been so long.

He pulls me to him suddenly, and I stiffen in surprise. His big arms engulf me in a bear hug. I hate that I curl into him and hug him back harder than I have hugged anyone in a long time, excluding my lapse the first day I blew back into town.

When he steps back, his heavy hands are still on my shoul­ders.

‘You look fantastic,’ he tells me, and I know he means every word. He loved me when I was ugly. ‘Very different. Like. So dif­ferent.’ His eyes are wide. ‘But great. Wow. I can’t believe you’re here.’

I’ve thought of this moment many times. I never pictured him to be so happy to see me. But of course he is. He’s Nick.

‘You too, Nick. You’ve aged well.’ We’re only twenty-one years old – Nick’s actually twenty-two – but I feel like I’ve aged a lifetime since I was last here. ‘Is it weird to say you look a lot like your dad?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Good. Because I always thought your dad was pretty hot.’

He exhales a breathy laugh, shaking his head. ‘Good to see your sense of humour hasn’t changed.’ He smiles then. His wide, friendly smile. ‘Can we have dinner? Catch up?’

My mind automatically scrambles to think of a hundred excuses not to. I have none. Because I would love to have dinner with Nick. I also can’t wrap my head around the fact that he is happy to see me.

It’s also really nice of him to ask. Now I know for sure he doesn’t hate me. That’s a bonus.

‘Are you asking me out, Nick?’ I give him a cat-like grin.

He turns pink.

‘Yes, Josephine.’ He nods, smiling. ‘I’m asking you out. As old friends.’

I roll my eyes. ‘That’s boring. And it’s Josie now.’

He inches a little closer to me, enjoying the flirting. ‘Would you like it not to be as old friends?’

I offer a one-shouldered shrug.

His grin widens. ‘Then sure. I’m asking you out, Josie. What do you say?’

‘I’ll think about it,’ I say breezily.

Joanne slides my coffee over the counter. I thank her with a nod before turning to leave.

‘That’s it?’ Nick presses, standing in front of me.

‘What’s it?’

He shakes his head at me, trying not to smile. ‘You’re going to make me work for it all over again, aren’t you?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I say innocently.

‘You. Me. The pub. Tonight. Seven.’

I shake my head. ‘No.’

‘No?’ He’s incredulous.

‘My house, six-forty-five,’ I negotiate. ‘So you can give me a ride to the pub.’

His gaze is on my mouth, exactly where I want it to be. I offer him a little smirk.

‘Six-forty-five. Your house.’ He nods. ‘I’ll be there.’

‘Don’t be late,’ I tease, brushing past him.

‘Trust me, I wouldn’t miss it.’

The rumble of Nick’s truck clattering down the gravel road sends a swooping sensation through my stomach.

The clicking of my heels resonates around the small house as I strut down the hall. My brother takes one look at my outfit and shakes his head, choosing not to comment. When I fling the door open, Nick is jogging up the porch steps, the floorboards creaking.

He’s dressed in a button-up shirt and jeans, a typical ‘going out’ style for around here. He could pull off anything. It’s hard – if not impossible – to believe he hasn’t settled down with a nice girl or even married yet. Everyone around here settles quickly and starts families young.

His eyes roam over me, taking in my curve-hugging black dress with its plunging neckline. The girls around here do not dress like this. The thought of the dust and dirt in this house ruining my dress almost made me bail on the idea, but I decided the shocked faces and gossip swirling would make it worth it.

‘You look . . .’ He swallows. ‘Fantastic.’

‘Thanks.’ I smile, the first genuine one in a while. A compli­ment from Nick was something my world revolved around once.

As we make our way to the ute, a panicked look falls over his face.

‘Wait!’ he bursts, flinging the door open and frantically swip­ing at his dust-ridden front seat. He begins wiping a towel over it, which only smears the dirt.

‘Man,’ he sighs, shoulders sagging in defeat. ‘Your dress.’

I place a hand on his back. ‘You’re sweet, Nick. It’s fine.’

He flips the towel, spreading it neatly across the passenger seat and shooting me an apologetic look. I gently lower myself onto the seat, not leaning into anything, and give him another smile. He closes the door after me.

The drive to the pub is short, bumpy, and hot. Nick speaks a lot, bursting to tell me everything that has been going on.

He is co-running his parents’ farm with his dad, his mum having taken a step back to help his older sister with her three chil­dren. Elizabeth, his sister, married Doug (that was obvious since about the fifth grade), and they have three girls named May, June, and July. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

There are a few trucks dotted out the front of the pub. Nick pulls up at the entrance. It’s not as busy as I expected, or maybe this is busy for this place, considering the population. It’s easy to forget how small Fern Grove is.

It’s instantaneous; the moment we walk inside, heads turn, eyes widen. Some recognise me, some don’t.

Nick waves, smiles, murmurs ‘G’day’ to people as we make our way to a vacant table. I lean on my forearms once I’ve sat and regret it when my skin sticks to the tabletop. It’s sweltering in here. I glance up at a ceiling fan weakly whirring above us, barely generating enough breeze to reach our table directly underneath it, let alone anyone else’s.

Sweat dots Nick’s forehead when he joins me, and he dabs at it with a napkin that was sitting in a steel bucket with a set of knives and forks.

‘Enough about me.’ He smiles, continuing our conversation from earlier. ‘How are you? What have you been up to?’

‘The city was busy.’ I shrug. ‘Lots of dinners, cocktails, roof­top parties.’

‘Sounds luxurious,’ Nick says, those soft eyes giving me his utmost attention. ‘What did you do for work there?’

‘I’m an OHT.’

‘A what?’

‘Oral Health Therapist,’ I explain, suppressing a smile at his adorable clueless expression. Frustrating on anyone else, but adorable on Nick.

‘Sorry, I don’t know what that is.’

‘I’m a dentist for children up to the age of eighteen, basically.’

‘Oh.’ He nods, his dark eyebrows dipping for a moment. ‘Cool. Do you enjoy that?’

‘Yeah, I do. It pays well, and I’m always meeting new people.’

‘Good for you, Josie.’ He pronounces ‘Josie’ slow and a little strange, as if testing the word out on his tongue for the first time.

‘I tried to become a professional makeup artist, but there is a lot of competition for that, so I tried this and stuck with it.’

‘Right,’ he says. He scratches the back of his neck, suddenly looking a little awkward. Both of those career choices aren’t really options in Fern Grove.

‘I’ll get us some drinks. Black fish?’ I stand so abruptly, the chair behind me screeches against the floor.

‘I’ll get them,’ he insists.

‘Next round.’ I wave him off and saunter to the bar, feeling the eyes of almost every person in the pub on me.

I tap my fingers along the bar as I wait. A tall boy has appeared, with long hair pulled back into a messy low bun. His dark-washed jeans cling tightly to his legs, and a series of dark, swirling tattoos litter his arms. He doesn’t look country enough to be in a place like this. Too trendy, too . . . shit. My heart flops into my stomach with a sickening splat.

It’s him.

He laughs as he serves an old man with puffs of white hair covering his face and a round belly barely contained under his thin shirt. My eyes travel back to Harley.

Harley freaking Caldwell. The boy of my dreams. Or rather, nightmares.

Perfect olive skin. Stunning blue eyes. Razor-sharp jawline. Goddamn it. Why is he still so beautiful?

He finishes his conversation with the man and absently drags a too-used cloth across the bench before his eyes settle on me. Or my chest, to be more specific. I tilt my head to the side as his eyes travel everywhere I want them to.

‘Sex on the beach,’ I say.

He startles as if caught doing something he shouldn’t. ‘What?’

‘Sex on the beach?’ I drawl, leaning over and pushing myself onto the benchtop, watching his eyes drift lower once more. ‘Are you capable of making me one?’

He finally pulls his gaze to my eyes and blanches. Because he realises who I am. And he looks like he’s been shot in the foot.

I nod, confirming the question behind his eyes.

‘You . . .’

‘Remember me?’ I ask.

He hasn’t blinked in about thirty seconds.

‘I sure remember you, you piece of shit,’ I murmur, leaning further in, my fingernails pressing into the palms of my hand as I fist them. ‘You ruined my life, and I will never forget that. You’re a selfish asshole, and I prayed I’d never have to see your face again.’

With that, I straighten, the aloof expression finding my face again as I survey the basic alcohol selection.

‘Two beers. Black fish will do.’ My gaze drifts around the room, and several people dart their eyes away.

Harley hasn’t moved and doesn’t until I look back. He slowly goes about obtaining the drinks, having grown paler in the last few moments. He slides the drinks across the counter, and I wave my card at him.

‘So, no sex on the beach?’ I ask when he stares at the machine, as if willing it to say approved faster than it wants to. It finally clears, the machine buzzing so loud, it sounds like it might take off. ‘Shame,’ I say. ‘That’s my favourite.’

He breathes hard for a moment, appearing speechless.

Good. You bastard.

When I’m back at the table, Nick is in deep discussion with the couple behind us, not having noticed the commotion at the bar, thankfully. It’s a serious sore spot between us. I’d rather not rehash that piece of history, considering it’s the first time I’ve seen Nick in four years. Since it happened.

‘Eleanor, Charlie – you remember Josephine Mayor? My—’

‘Heartbreaker, childhood sweetheart, girl of his dreams,’ I cas­ually fill in as I slide back into my seat.

Both of their faces change when they see me. Most definitely because of my outfit and new appearance, but mostly thanks to shock over my return. I’m guessing, anyway.

‘Sure, of course.’ It’s Eleanor who speaks first. ‘Hi, Josephine. It’s been a long time. How are you?’

‘It’s Josie now, and never been better.’ I smile sweetly. ‘And you?’

‘Good,’ she chirps, glancing at Charlie.

Eleanor and Charlie were two years above us at school, and good family friends of Nick’s, so I did a lot with them when I was here.

The small talk between us is strained and awkward, and they soon make an excuse to leave. We order our food, and I try to keep the distaste off my face when I see the limited options on the menu.

‘There’ll just be a twenty-five-minute wait tonight,’ the waiter twangs, chewing her gum obnoxiously. ‘Possibly thirty.’

‘Why?’ I deadpan, lazily looking towards the tables. ‘There’s hardly anyone here.’

‘That’s fine,’ Nick says at the same time. Always the polite, nice guy. ‘Thanks, Ainsley.’

I glance to the bar, sinking a little lower in my seat, and notice Harley has disappeared. Good. I hope my arrival back in town has shaken him.

Mentally disregarding those haunting blue eyes of his, I shift in my seat, hating how my thighs sweat against the hardwood instantly.

‘This heat is unbearable,’ I whine in exasperation. ‘Has no one ever heard of air-conditioning around here?’

‘Air-cons exhaust the generators,’ he points out. ‘Remember?’

Oh, I remember. Continual blackouts. Being unable to move from the sticky, humid heat. Why anyone chooses to live here is beyond me.

‘How’s co-running the farm going? Is your dad driving you insane?’

‘He’s been good,’ Nick answers. ‘The drought was stressful for everyone, but we’ve bounced back. We always do.’

Nick’s thumb caresses the side of his beer glass. Condensation drips in a ring around the glass, warming the liquid inside to the point our beers are almost undrinkable. He takes another long sip regardless, obviously used to the taste by now.

‘What’s your deal, Nicholas?’ I tease. ‘No fiancée, no wife? A catch like you.’

He cracks a smile – a forced, strained smile. ‘In case you for­got, my heart was splintered into a million pieces by a certain someone.’

His words cut into me. Very deep, but we both force casual smiles onto our faces, trying not to think too hard about the past.

‘Little old me? Surely not.’ I wave off breezily. ‘I was a nobody.’

‘You were never a nobody. Not to me.’

I drain the rest of my glass and clink it down a little too aggres­sively.

‘Another?’ he prompts, standing and reaching for my glass before I can answer, obviously wanting to escape the tension-building-by-the-minute air around us as much as I do.

The loud groan of a wooden door draws my attention. Harley reappears, looking a little dishevelled but more composed than ear­lier. When our eyes lock, I lean back in my chair, challenging him to make the next move. He looks to his feet, scuttling away like the coward he is. Long lost is the cocky bravado he once oozed.

Nick, Harley and I, all under one roof, with an audience watching our every move. Perfect.

‘Where are you living now?’ I ask Nick.

‘At the farm.’

‘You still live at home?’ The words are out before I can stop them. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

‘Yes and no. I’m at the same place but in the granny flat out the back.’

‘Oh.’

‘It’s fine.’ He shrugs. ‘Has everything I need. And Mum still cooks and does my washing.’

I fake a smile. ‘Great.’

Placing the glass against my lips, I take a long drink.

‘You really never settled down in the four years I was away?’ I ask, my curiosity not satisfied.

Exhaling, he shifts in his seat.

‘There was a girl. She lived a few towns over. We met at a fundraiser. I thought we wanted the same things. I proposed after six months of dating.’ I watch his throat move as he takes a long gulp of his beer. ‘Turns out, she wasn’t ready to settle down. My forwardness freaked her out. The relationship wasn’t really the same after that, so we decided to part ways. There was another before her, but when I wouldn’t . . . she wanted to . . . well . . . let’s just say that didn’t last long.’

‘Oh, Nick,’ I murmur, realising he had the same problem with her as he did with me. Guilt swirls in my stomach at the thought. ‘I’m sorry.’

He nods. ‘Thanks. I’m over it all now, but it took me a while. I don’t take dealing with heartbreak very well.’

‘No one does.’

There’s a heavy tension between us that thankfully gets broken when the waitress places our food in front of us.

Our eyes meet fleetingly before I look down at my plate. I force myself to eat at least half of my meal – even though it tastes like rubber – before I push away my plate. Nick has barely swal­lowed the last of his dinner before I’m leaning close.

‘Want to get out of here?’

He only looks surprised for a moment before he nods. Nick’s hand rests on the small of my back as he guides me around the bodies and out the exit. I look over my shoulder to see Harley watching. I shoot him a withering stare before we disappear through the door.

I try to ignore the dust landing on my heels as we make our way back to his ute. The carpark is patchy and uneven. I squint in the dim lighting, trying to avoid holes that are long overdue to be filled in.

‘What’s next for you?’ Nick asks me as we bounce along the road. He clears his throat and repeats his question louder.

‘I have no idea. I need to move out. Re-evaluate some life deci­sions. Move on, I guess.’

‘You’re planning to leave?’ he questions, glancing at me. ‘Again?’

I half-shrug, meeting his gaze. ‘Unless I have a reason to stay.’

Our eyes lock on each other for so long that I hear the tyres spin into the gravel on the side of the road. Nick yanks the steering wheel to the right, pulling us back onto the road. He apologises about twenty times, but I wave him off. I’ve been through a lot worse than something as minor as that.

Nick removes his seatbelt but keeps the truck running when we pull up at the end of my driveway, the air-conditioning barely cool as it spurts through the vents. It makes a loud humming sound that would drive me mad if I was forced to be in here for a long time.

‘Thank you for dinner,’ I say, wanting to lie and say it was great food, but I can’t force myself to pretend. I truly can’t hide how much I hate it here.

‘Thank you for coming.’ He grins his wide, teeth-baring grin. ‘Honestly, seeing you walk into that café, I couldn’t believe it. After all this time.’

I stare ahead, the yellow glow of the headlights shine into the distance, only the peeling fence posts and browning grass in view. I don’t let his words sink in. Instead, I turn, offering him a smirk. ‘Did you miss me?’

‘Yes.’ He nods more seriously than I was hoping for. ‘Of course, I did, Joseph – Josie.’

Unclipping my seatbelt, I climb over onto his lap, straddling him. Innocent shock registers on his face, and I settle in deeply, grinding into him and pressing my palms onto his chest. His shirt feels slightly damp under my skin.

‘How much?’

‘What?’ he croaks.

‘How much did you miss me?’

‘More than you’d ever know.’

‘Prove it,’ I whisper.

His warm hands find my back, searing me through the thin fabric of my dress. I lean into him. When he hesitates, I place my mouth over his. I haven’t kissed anyone other than Elliot for over two years, and it feels strange, but also like old memories.

His mouth is hot and slippery, his tongue playfully clashing with mine as we work out a groove. God. Nicholas Schneider. The boy I adored. Obsessed over. The boy whose heart I pulled out of his chest and stepped on when I didn’t get what I wanted. I don’t deserve this. Him. A second chance.

And here I am, back in his arms, like I never left.

I fumble at his buttons, his shirt tearing open under my rushed hands.

‘Hey, woah, hey,’ he flusters when my hands sink lower.

Like always, Nick stops it from getting too far. Which was the start of all our problems.

‘Don’t tell me you’re still holding on to this virgin act.’ I roll my eyes at him. ‘We’re not seventeen anymore.’

Anger and disappointment flash in his eyes. ‘I just got you back. I don’t want to rush anything. I don’t even know you anymore.’

‘Who cares?’ I huff, pulling his chin to me and kissing him.

‘Josie!’ he snaps, pushing my hand away. ‘Stop.’

We glare at each other for a heated moment. Guilt slams hard into my gut, but instead of letting it consume me, I bolt from the car. He’s right after me, reaching for my arm.

‘Wait!’ He exhales so deeply that I feel the heat of his breath on the back of my neck. ‘Can you just wait a damn minute?’

‘What?’

‘This,’ he throws his hand between us, ‘you and me. There’s a lot here. You know me, you know my values. Why do you always push it?’

‘Because I want more from you,’ I snap. ‘I’ve always wanted more.’

‘You can’t expect everything to go back to how it was, Josie. Not after . . .’ There’s a thick silence. He can’t say it. ‘Look,’ he sighs, running a hand through his hair. ‘This was too much, too fast, okay? Can we just . . . pretend these last five minutes didn’t happen?’

I let out a half-laugh, half-scoff, folding my arms across my chest. ‘No. Not really.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because it’s infuriating and confusing and just like four fucking years ago!’ I hiss. He flinches. Naïve Josie would never have spoken like this to him. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll do everyone a favour and disappear again.’

‘Why are you being like this?’

I hold my chin high and glare over his head at the dark sky. He sighs heavily once more.

‘Josie.’ His voice is soft. ‘I just got you back. Please.’

Something in me crumbles. My hands fall to my sides. He lightly touches my arm.

‘What happened to you?’ he whispers. ‘Something . . . some­thing bad has happened. Worse than here.’

At that, I retract from his hold, backing up as if he’d slapped me. I force a flippant smile onto my face.

‘Thanks for dinner and the make-out sesh. A night to truly remember. See you around, Nicky.’ I mock-salute him and turn on my heels before stalking into the house.

I glare through the blinds and watch as he shakes his head, bewildered, before hopping back into his truck and reversing down the driveway.

‘Yikes,’ my brother’s voice floats down the stairs. He’s clearly just walked up them after eavesdropping. He is standing in his pyjamas, a bowl of ice cream clutched in his hands. ‘No wonder you don’t have any friends. You’re a total bitch.’

He strolls away, and I stare after him, feeling a lot worse than I did a few seconds ago.


Meant To Be Lauren Jackson

A steamy new adult romance perfect for fans of Ana Huang, Lucy Score, Tessa Bailey and Monica Murphy.

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