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Authors: Cate Kendall

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BOOK: Chanel Sweethearts
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2

The next morning Jessica stepped over the rake lying across her back doormat. She banged her Blundstones against the step to scare out any uninvited guests and sat to pull the boots on.

She gazed across her property's broad expanse and beyond to the whitecaps darting across Westernport Bay. The waves roared and crashed, urged on by a strong southerly. This was the homestead's best view.

But although Jess saw it, it didn't move her as it normally would. She sighed and looked at the crazy cottage gardens that flanked the gravel path. She should be concerned that a yellow broom seed had sown its wicked work and was infiltrating her wildflower bed, but really she couldn't care less.

Usually the chaos and colour of her native wildflowers made her smile, but not today. They hadn't for some time. Maybe Nick could come and give her a hand, although his job description supposedly kept him in the paddocks, not in the domestic garden.

She forced herself to her feet, restrained her wild curls with an elastic, and wandered down the wide garden steps. She saw with a start the daisy grubber that sat rusting in the same spot where she'd jammed it over a month ago. It wasn't like her to neglect her beautiful garden for so long.

But it was hard work to maintain the property now that she was on her own.

It just seemed so much easier to cook, clean and garden when she knew that others would enjoy it too. She couldn't seem to dredge up any joy these days. Everything was mere duty: the gardening, the General Store, her friends, even her art.

All night she had mulled over Jimmy's job offer and the whole idea was just giving her a headache now. What he'd said was true, she had wanted an artistic career – once. But she'd changed. Nothing excited her or moved her anymore; nothing gave her that swell in the guts that she used to get when she spied a piece of nature balanced well against its backdrop, or an old chair that needed just a splash of paint in a vintage shop, or the perfect colour of ochre in a pebble ... it was all gone. Graham had taken so much more than the boys when he'd left her.

A movement in the corner of the yard caught her eye and she turned to see the empty swing, hanging from the boughs of the she-oak, swaying in the wind.

She glared at it and turned away, redirecting her glare at the overgrown garden.

The native flowers, oblivious to their owner's despondency, gaily bobbed their heads in the brisk breeze from the south. The dietes lining the homestead's baseboards were beginning to pop out their mini iris-like heads. The scarlet running postman wandered lazily across the path, while pink fairy orchids and blue periwinkles jostled happily together, ignoring the threat of the greedy agapanthus lurking behind.

Jessica was proud of her drought-tolerant Australian garden, but even the most self-sufficient flora needed some TLC occasionally and, thanks to this rotten immobilising malaise, they had been neglected for too long.

She looked down to the orchard. The bulbs around the fruit trees were on their last legs. She should pick the remaining few dozen blooms and take them to the General Store. There were enough for each of the tables. Maybe she could create a tall centerpiece for the entrance table from the cherry blossom branches. Or maybe not. It was too hard. It never used to be too hard. It used to be fun. There was lots in her life that used to be fun.

What had she done wrong in the relationship? What could she have done better? Why didn't Graham love her? Why did he have to take the boys away from her? Her heart resumed its familiar frenetic increase in pace and her breathing shortened. She shook her head and tried to snap out of it. It had been eight months. Why was she punishing herself with the same questions; the same interminable thought patterns, over and over; again and again? It didn't help; it just made it worse. She breathed deeply, slowing down the panic.

Shielding her eyes, she looked up at the sun. She had to get to her afternoon shift in about an hour. She had a tremendous manager at the General Store, Linda Dundas, so Jessica's presence wasn't crucial, and she didn't have to be on time, but she liked spending time at the store, chatting with customers, maintaining the look of the place, and ensuring the gallery ran smoothly.

She took a deep breath and attacked the garden beds; she pulled out weeds, evicted snails and wrestled with aggies using the physical toil as therapy to channel all her sadness and frustration.

3

The sweat dripped off Nick Johnson's forehead and onto the parched earth. Catriona Bayard stood over him, hands on hips.

‘No, I think it's a bit crooked. How about you twist it about thirty degrees?'

Nick stood up slowly, easing the crick out of his back and stared at the lady of the manor. He was a patient bloke. He was tolerant and empathetic. But some of these tourists who came down to his township on the weekend were complete shockers.

‘I've ... umm ... already planted it,' he explained. The mature crepe myrtle loomed above them.

‘Oh, I don't mind if you have to dig it back up,' Cat said with a flick of her hand. ‘But it must match the other one,' she pointed to a second crepe myrtle on the other side of the driveway. ‘Let me know when you shift it – I'll be down at the manège.'

Nick glared at the generous jodhpur-clad bottom as it swayed off towards the dressage arena.

Surely Cat wasn't seriously expecting him to dig for another two hours just to twist the thing around? He stared at the crepe myrtle's mate. It had long limbs reaching out eastwards while the new tree's limbs reached northwards. Simple. Nick grabbed his shears and snipped the overgrown boughs off each tree and gave the foliage a clean-up until the two silent sentries were twins, impossible to tell apart.

The bright late-morning sun filtered through the pencil-pines and dappled the mulch.

Now he had time for more satisfying design pursuits. He worked his way down the exposed aggregate driveway towards the manor, where he tidied up the overgrown English-style garden. He pulled a few errant weeds from the rose garden and noted with pride that the savage pruning months earlier had resulted in a bounty of blooms.

The daphne beneath the French windows was awash with buds and as he hacked it back from the path he grinned at the powerful fragrance that clouded the air. He cut some for Jess, hoping it would bring a smile to her face. She'd been so miserable since that bastard broke her bloody heart. God, what he wouldn't give to smack that guy in the mouth sometime. The idea of it made Nick grin happily as he chose blooms for his friend.

Once he'd amassed a sizable bunch he turned to survey the grounds. Nick was no trendy landscape designer, more a general hand, really, but he had long been popular with the holidaymakers who flooded into their rural properties over the warmer months. Apart from Cat Bayard's occasional eccentricity, he enjoyed this job – and it was the only other regular gig he did now that he worked full-time at the Wainwrights' Springforth Estate as Richard Wainwright's farm manager. He'd taken the job on a few months ago, thrilled to be able to help Jessica manage her dad's property. It gave him a chance to be there for her more and support her as much as he could as she dealt with the heartbreak of losing those boys. Nick smiled to himself again as he imagined their cheeky faces lit up with joy as they played hide-and-seek around the property with him and Jess.

He'd been managing the farm unofficially for years anyway: as Jessica's friend and advisor he'd been happy to help where he could. After all, they'd been friends since high school. They'd drifted apart for awhile in their twenties, which he knew was his fault, but things had been, well, difficult back then. Now they were as close as ever, and he loved it.

‘Oh, good, you did it,' Cat said, waddling back an hour later draped in various pieces of riding tack. ‘See, it's so much better facing the other direction, isn't it?'

‘Absolutely, Cat, your suggestion was spot on,' Nick said, managing to keep a straight face.

‘Sorry I couldn't be here to supervise, I had to see to Lady. She's fussing with her new snaffle, the minx. Can you believe the farrier suggested an Uxeter Kimberwicke?'

‘Err, no, I, guess I can't.'

‘Outrageous! Anyway, next time, Nick, I'd like to improve the ambience of the kitchen, so I'd like you to create a window in the rear hedge so we can enjoy a water view.'

‘Riiiight,' Nick said. ‘I'll see what I can do.'

‘And do you think we could grow some aubergines and courgettes in the vegie patch? Apparently they're culinarily
de rigueur.
Not that I'd know,' – she snorted a rather equine laugh – ‘I'm a hopeless cook! If it doesn't come in a packet I wouldn't have a clue! But in the country one really must do a kitchen garden à la Stephanie Alexander.'

‘Let me work on that for you,' Nick said.

‘Brill, you're a marvel,' Cat brayed with pleasure, flashing her impressive teeth. ‘You mightn't guess, but I don't really have much of a green thumb, so you're my absolute saviour.'

‘Really?' Nick said, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

‘Yar, yar, absolutely. House plants take one look at me and run screaming to the compost heap in a suicide mission,' she said and snorted happily.

‘Well, it's a magnificent garden.'

‘As long as the horses are happy, that's all that matters. Leave your invoice in the mud-room: I'll have Freddy draw you a cheque. Which reminds me, must get those frozen Yorkshire puds in the oven,' she said, and she tottered off to the stables.

Nick threw his tools into the back of the truck. Cat was all right. They all were, really, these townies who used his hometown as a holiday village. Many of his local friends couldn't stand the city folk. ‘Swanning in as if they owned the place,' Mrs Carmody from the bookshop complained every weekend. It didn't matter how many times Nick pointed out to Maude Carmody and her cronies that the city dwellers with their fancy holiday houses kept the village alive, they'd still grumble. ‘Real show ponies, the lot of 'em!'

Nick slammed shut the rear door of the ute's tray and walked around to the driver's door. Sure, parking became nightmarish in the small main street on the weekends and nigh impossible during school holidays. And the visitors' voices did grate as they complained loudly to each other about the substandard cheese platter at the local winery, or the poor weather that had ‘ruined' their mini-break.

Oh well, Nick thought as he started up the engine, tourist season would soon be here in full force, so they'd just have to make the best of it. The summer school holidays were only a few weeks away, bringing with them a stampede of Toorak Tractors and Balwyn Buses. The bottle shop owner would shortly order Stoli and Veuve to replace the Bundaberg Rum and ten-dollar plonk on his shelves, and the little town's economy would start to whir into life, to the sound of the grumbles and mumbles of the checkout chicks, waitresses and footy-club lads who could no longer get a table at the pub.

As Nick drove down the shady drive and out to the main road, he chuckled again as he thought of the dozens of eggplant and zucchini plants already growing in Cat's vegie patch.

Thank goodness they were gone. Caro Wainwright's luxuriously appointed and generously proportioned Malvern house was her own for six glorious hours.

Wednesdays were bliss. It was Angus's bonding morning with the children. He started work late so that he could drive them to their exclusive inner-city school and catch up with them during the ten-minute commute.

She leaned against the front door for a few moments, listening for a last-minute return for forgotten books or homework. No, they'd gone. She smoothed down her long brunette bob and scurried to the kitchen as fast as her Bally mules would allow.

Had she locked the front door? She nearly turned back. Yes, she had, no chance of being caught. She opened the gift cupboard and removed the box of wrapping paper.

Her teak stash box was at the back, under a scarf. She pulled it out and opened the lid. Her blue-and-gold pack of mother's-little-helpers lurked in all their carcinogenic glory. It was wicked, stupid and frightfully politically incorrect, and her husband would absolutely kill her if he found out, but God she loved her morning ciggie.

She didn't even have any smoking friends anymore. Or if she did, they'd never admit it. We're a dying breed, she thought, and laughed at her cynical joke. She wandered out into the morning sun that bathed the generous courtyard, clicked her gold lighter into life and drew in her first satisfying puff.

The patio and surrounding gardens appeared immaculate, but she knew she would find something out of place. Sure enough, an ugly little weed was threatening to upset the uniformity of the recently spread black mulch. Holding the cigarette aloft, she leaned down and tore the offender from her garden bed, tossing it into the weed bucket hidden behind the Japanese screen.

The topiaries rustled in a slight breeze and she glared at them, daring a leaf to drop onto the sandstone pavers. The leaves thought better of their intention and held fast.

An English box hedge neatly bordered the courtyard's edge and the espaliered fruit trees clinging to the back fence were her clever answer to Angus's desire for a country touch in their urban home. Angus adored his father's large country estate; he'd grown up there and still enjoyed taking the family down for weekends. Caro enjoyed going too, of course, but the country was ever so dusty and played havoc with her blow-wave.

Caro smiled at the lushness of the camellia plants: they were sure to flower well this season, she thought with satisfaction. Now that they'd been pruned back into square blocks they were quite architectural and would render a welcome fragrance. It had been worth the effort of having that mulch brought in and applied last month (she didn't enjoy touching soil, it reminded her too much of dirt). The entire look was going to be perfect for the patio party she was planning to farewell summer. Although summer hadn't yet arrived, Caro liked to be organised.

She pursed her lips as she stared at the large maple stretching tall from its pride of place front and centre. It had better jolly well turn bright red next autumn. Its recent installation had required a crane and several thousand dollars. Though of course it would be worth it, because her horticulturist had assured her it would complement her drapes perfectly.

She carefully butted out the cigarette and hid it inside a can at the bottom of the recycling bin. No one would find it there.

Eugene, the alpaca, stared down his nose at Rainbow. His eyes were half closed in a haughty glare and his nostrils flared. Rainbow put her hands on her hips and stared back. There was no way Eugene would let her pass. This was his turf. He'd staked it out. There was a nice water supply nearby and a pile of fruit. He was very happy where he was and he wasn't planning on letting some upstart hippie unsettle his little piece of paradise. A sprinkling of alpaca pellets pattered onto the floorboards behind him.

Experience told Rainbow there was no point trying to negotiate with Eugene in this mood, so she stretched over his warm, solid back to open the fridge and squeeze a bottle of iced dandelion tea from the door.

She now needed glasses, but the beast's firm buttocks were leaning on the door to the cupboard. ‘Come on, Eugene, get out of the way.' She flung her long, dirty blonde dreadlocks to one side and nudged his bottom with her bare toes.

Eugene gave a long-lashed look of superiority, then, without shifting position, leaned over to the fruit bowl where he selected the choicest organic apple from the pile and munched it noisily.

Rainbow sighed and grabbed two disposable cups from above the fridge instead.

‘What the hell are ya doin'?!' Songbird's rough baritone broke through the screen door a second before she did. She clutched her short, cropped auburn hair in disbelief. ‘I don't believe it.'

‘I know, I know,' Rainbow hurried to excuse herself, ‘it's just that–'

‘I can't believe my eyes. Rainbow, darlin' heart, what are you thinking? Disposable cups? As I live and breathe, disposable cups in my own house!' Songbird rubbed the dirt off her hands onto her folded-down dungarees. She lived in dungarees and workboots and would rather eat at McDonald's than be caught dead in any clothing that even hinted at femininity. Especially make-up, which to Songbird's reckoning was about as sensible as organised religion or day-spa treatments.

Rainbow rolled her eyes. ‘Eugene is blocking the glassware cupboard and anyway, I'm going to plant herbs in them after our morning tea.' She pulled her long tie-dyed skirt out from under Eugene's foot. Rainbow's look was more feminine, a blend of hippie chic meets tooth fairy.

Songbird's hands dropped in relief.

‘Oh, that's all right then. Are they the cups we got from the tip last week?'

‘Yes, sweetie, don't panic.' As Rainbow patted the air to calm Songbird down, her mass of skinny silver bangles jingled, competing with the wind chimes blowing outside the kitchen window.

‘That's my girl! For a terrible minute there I thought you'd bought new ones.'

‘Yeah, and then I carried them home in a plastic shopping bag while spraying my dreads with hairspray.'

‘Ya dag!' Songbird grinned and took the iced tea from her partner with a smile. ‘Thanks, darl, you're grouse.' She downed the tea in one, carefully rinsed the plastic cup and put it on the draining board.

‘Now, back to the terra preta,' Songbird said.

‘Yeah, now tell me the plan again?' Rainbow asked, finally convincing Eugene to go outside.

The women stepped over the two preschoolers who were marking out a racetrack in the dirt by the back door, and surveyed the back paddock.

‘We're enriching the soil and sucking carbon back,' Songbird explained with a sweeping arc of her arm.

‘Oh, goody. How?' Rainbow asked.

‘It's very simple. We're making an underground oven, if you like. I've borrowed an old plough and Eugene and Ralphie are going to pull it–'

‘Eugene?' Rainbow looked at her partner skeptically.

‘Okay, we'll get Digger. Digger and Ralphie are going to plough up the paddock. Then, essentially, we're going to plant compost, grass cuttings, garden rubbish and food scraps, then backfill the lot.'

BOOK: Chanel Sweethearts
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