The power is back on and the generator is stashed away. (Although I just found the long extension cord chewed to bits by the dog. Not impressed!!) So I have for you today the first chapter of The Sunburnt Country. I hope you enjoy it. Don’t forget to read how to enter the competition to win a signed copy of my new book at the bottom. 🙂 Enjoy and have a happy Australia Day! (I’m a proud Aussie)
Hot westerly winds rattled the old tin roof and blew a small eddy of dust into the workshop. Jonelle put down the container of coolant and reached for the radiator cap that was resting on the car’s motor. She should have been more careful but it was too late: her dusky-pink nail polish chipped on contact with the motor. ‘Oh, crap. Nae’s gonna kill me,’ she mumbled. Her nails were hardly worth doing, always kept short out of necessity. Without another thought for her newly manicured nails, she screwed the cap into place and wiped her hands on her faded blue overalls before leaning on the front of the car. Jonelle Baxter smiled. She closed her eyes and let the smell of petrol and grease calm her. This was her comfort zone. This was her life. She gazed around at her workshop, with its corrugated tin walls, and masses of tyres and car parts scattered about.
Her serenity was shattered by the panic that started to rise through her body as she realised how close she was to losing it all. But she’d die before she’d let this place go. It was more than just a workshop – it was home.
‘Oh my God! What are you doing? You shouldn’t be working!’
Jonelle’s eyes jerked open. Her best friend Renae stomped towards her, a pair of black heels swinging from one hand, the other hand resting on her jutted hip. She was trying to frown but her lightly powdered twenty-six-year-old skin barely wrinkled. Then she spotted the chipped nail polish. ‘Jesus, Jonny. I just did them today. They only had to last ’til tomorrow.’ Renae shrugged her slim shoulders, her usual way of dismissing Jonelle’s lack of concern. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure by tomorrow there’ll be a new shade you’ll want to try.’
Jonelle glanced at her hands, glad they weren’t completely covered in grease.
Renae tried to glare but the smile on her glossed lips gave her away. ‘I swear, my best work is wasted on you.’ Renae pointed to Jonny’s worn, dusty boots. ‘And you have the best toes, but you never bloody show them off.’ She swung the shoes at Jonny, who caught them with both hands. ‘Wear those tonight.’
‘Thanks, Nae. But my thongs will do.’ Renae knew Jonny only had workboots, thongs and a pair of ugg boots in her shoe collection.
‘No, they won’t. Come on, humour me? Please? At least your hair is bushed shiny. I love it when you take the time to do your hair properly.’ She paused as she gave Jonny’s overalls a once-over. ‘You’re not even ready for this dinner, are you?’
Jonny shut the bonnet on her car, giving it a rub with the rag she pulled out from her overalls. ‘Yes. Why do you think I’m getting the car ready?’
Renae laughed, brushing her fringe back from her oval face. Her dark roots were growing out and soon Jonny would be enlisted to play hairdresser again.
‘Not the bloody car, Jonny. You! You’re the one going out for the night, not that thing.’
Caressing her 1977 308 LX Torana SLR 5000, she admired its orange finish and its traditional muscle car silhouette. ‘It’s okay, she didn’t mean that,’ Jonny whispered to her car before facing Renae. ‘Hey, don’t knock my car, and it’s not a date. It’s just dinner. Mates getting together, like it’s always been,’ she stressed. Jonny carefully placed the shoes on the bonnet, and popped the buttons on her overalls, revealing the blue summer dress she’d put on earlier. ‘Ta da! See? I’m ready,’ she said, stepping out of the overalls and hanging them from the hook on the corrugated wall of the workshop. She whipped off her boots and socks then slipped on the black heels, throwing Renae a look that said ‘Are you happy now?’ She figured she better humour her best friend; besides, saying no to Renae was always hard. Jonny liked seeing her happy.
‘You’re twenty-six, Jonny. You should start thinking of it as a date. You haven’t had a fella since…’ Renae’s brow creased as she held up her hand to count fingers.
Jonny shot her a warning glare.
‘Anyway, you scrub up real well, Jonelle Baxter…when you can be bothered.’
‘Well, it helps having a beautician as a best friend. Even though it’s not officially a date, thanks for your help.’ She hugged her friend. ‘You working at the pub tonight?’
‘Cool. If you see Zac or JB in there, ask them if they’ve fixed the chook pen for Mum yet. Give ’em hell, if they haven’t.’
‘I always rev up your brothers, you know that.’
‘All right, I’m off. Gotta get stuff from the shop first,’ Jonny said. ‘Can you close up for me?’ Renae rolled her eyes but nodded. ‘Thanks again. Talk to ya tomorrow.’ Jonny headed for the driver’s side and opened the door on her orange Torana.
As Jonny drove out, she saw Renae slide the door shut on the workshop. Jonny gave a last wave of thanks. The business name, Jonny’s Mechanical, was painted in white and red across the big blue building. Despite the paint job being only a few years old, the workshop would just look like a run-down pile of tin to most. But to Jonelle it was her life. It always had been, even when she was a kid. The old petrol pump out the front had stopped working long before she could remember but it stood now as a memory of days gone by. She could no sooner get rid of it than she could the old oil signs and car numberplates that lined the shed walls. It had all been there when she’d bought the business from Coot. He was as old as the workshop and the stuff he collected – he hadn’t been saddled with the name ‘old coot’ for nothing.
Coot was more than just an eccentric old man; he’d been her mate, surrogate grandfather and idol. And because of what he meant to her, she loved the place just the way it was. Everyone around these parts knew that no matter how old it looked on the outside, on the inside you could still get your car fixed.
With another glance down the deserted street, Jonny gunned the V8 motor. As always, the thumping sound of the eight cylinders brought a smile to her lips and sent a rumble through her chest. On the main street of Bundara she headed towards Gabby and Carlos’s grocery shop. The town wasn’t huge: five streets, with most of the businesses on the main drag, like the pub, post office and grocery shop. On her street was Phil’s Tractors, which had closed six months ago, and the Farmworks shop, which had put off two of its staff, one of them being the agronomist. Don’t need one of them in a drought. It was like have a ladies’ vending machine in the men’s toilets, so her dad had said. Bloody pointless.
Jonelle parked out the front of a brick building with a bullnose verandah, the Bundara General Store sign hanging from its eaves. Getting out of the car, Jonny cursed as she twisted her ankle in Renae’s shoes. ‘Good for nothing,’ she muttered as she wound down the window before shutting the door. With the heat from the burning sun the car would be an oven by the time she got back in. Maybe she should have taken the ute. At least it had air-con.
Through the dark lenses of her sunglasses, Jonelle glanced up at the blue sky that stretched over Bundara – not a cloud in sight. It was the story of the whole year and then some. She’d forgotten what rain even smelt like or how it felt.
‘No matter how hard you stare at, it won’t make it rain.’
Gabby had emerged from the shop with an old straw broom. Jonny stepped across to the shade of the verandah and joined her. ‘One day it might work, Gabs.’
‘Ha, yeah, maybe,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re looking good today, Jonny. Got a hot date with Coop, I hear.’
‘Jesus. Not you too.’ Jonny tugged at her dress, the floaty material feeling weird against her slim legs. ‘I’m just watching out for him. Someone’s gotta make sure he’s looking after himself with his folks away,’ she added.
Jonny had known Ryan Cooper her whole life. Born two years his junior, they had played together since their first encounter in the sandpit. She had become his friend before Zac who was too busy playing with his older brothers. Ryan was an only child as his parents had trouble conceiving and they were late in life when he magically came along. So Jonny had become his closest friend and sister, to a degree.
Gabby leaned against her broom, her faced pained. ‘Yeah, poor bloke. I know it’s still hard on him.’ Gabby swept a few dark ringlets back and tried to tuck them into her loose bun. ‘You tell him we’re thinking of him, won’t you?’
‘Sure, Gabs. I better get the food and head out.’ Inside, Jonny picked up a basket and zoomed around the small shop, gathering the things she’d need to make carbonara tonight. She couldn’t go past the honeycomb ice-cream. It was Ryan’s favourite, and besides, she’d eat any ice-cream. On the other side of the narrow counter Carlos started ringing up her goods. His large olive hands whisked each item through and bagged them up with practised ease.
‘Hey, Jonny. You’re looking hot to trot,’ he said with a wiggle of his thick eyebrows. His black hair sat in a moulded blob like a Lego man’s. ‘You been keeping busy?’ Carlos and Gabby had bought the shop five years ago, but they’d had it back on the market for the last two.
‘Yeah, sort of, Carlos. Plenty to do. Just don’t get paid for it,’ Jonny said.
‘Lets hope it picks up, hey.’ As Carlos beeped through the last item, he asked, ‘On the account?’
In his dark eyes she saw the questioning glance she knew well. ‘Yes, please. Look…’ she drew in a deep breath, ‘I know my account’s way overdue, but I’m a bit strapped this month. Any chance I can trade you a service?’
To her relief, Carlos smiled. ‘Sure thing, Jonny. The car is way overdue. I’ve been putting it off. I think my tyres are due for a change, too. These roads are bad and Gabby’s always driving Ethan to his doctor in Narrogin for his asthma.’
Jonny felt awful having to ask for the reprieve but it was tough times and Carlos understood. If it had been anyone else she wouldn’t have asked. ‘Bring it around any time.’ Jonny wasn’t sure if Carlos was just helping her out or whether he really did need new tyres, but she couldn’t be picky. ‘Thanks again, Carlos.’
‘Ah, sweet girl. You’re doing me a favour. Have a good night. Say hi to Ryan for us. Oh, did you hear about the rescue meeting coming up?’
She grabbed her bags and headed for the door. ‘Yep, sure did. Cheers, Carlos. See ya.’
Jonelle felt her skin flush with heat as she climbed back into the Torana. She was glad she’d packed the Esky. Ryan’s farm was only fifteen minutes away but in this heat the ice-cream would be a runny mess by the time she got there.
Gabby was chatting to Sue outside the butcher shop, so Jonny gave them a toot as she went past. They waved back. Driving along the empty street again she wound her window up, almost to the top. She’d spent far too long this morning fixing her blonde hair into a cascade of gentle curls, and she’d be less than pleased if it turned into a windswept mess.
Jonny headed out of town past Renae’s little white house, which doubled as her beauty parlour when she wasn’t working at the pub or tending the school garden. Beyond Renae’s house were endless stretches of bare paddocks. No crops growing this year. Only a few farmers had taken the risk, and mainly it was just feed for the sheep. So all there was to look at were dull droopy gumtrees, brown thirsty bushes, dry earth and a scattering of yellow grasses. A sunburnt country, all right. Three years ago Bundara had been such a beautiful place, so green and lush, thriving. Jonny knew it would be like that again one day.
About ten minutes out of town, Jonny’s eye caught something glimmering in the sun off the side of the road. She began to slow and could soon see a man with the boot up on his white Holden Commodore Sportwagon. Flat tyre. She glanced at the Esky, wondering if the ice-cream would last. ‘Ah, bugger it.’ Changing down, she manoeuvred her car in behind the stranded Commodore.
Even as she walked up to the man, she knew he’d never changed a flat before. He was staring at the tyre uncertainly. He lifted his head and, seeing her, his eyes widened.
‘Well, you look like you could use a hand. Not the best weather to be stuck outside,’ Jonny said. He was a handsome guy, clean-shaven and wearing black slacks and a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. She could smell his aftershave in the afternoon air. She stopped a metre from him, but felt the lure of his scent pulling her closer.
‘Yeah. I’d like to say I know what I’m doing…but I don’t. I’m sure it’s not too hard to figure out.’ His hazel eyes sent shivers down her spine and he smiled as they watched each other in silence. After a few long seconds he glanced at her car.
‘LX Torana. SLR, nice. She purrs like a big cat.’ The stranded guy gazed longingly at her pride and joy.
Jonny glanced back at her baby. Orange with a black bonnet and fat wheels. ‘Yeah, but not so nice on hot days like this. You like cars?’
‘Sure do. Anything Holden, though.’
‘Ah, a man after my own heart,’ she replied. ‘If you’d said Ford, you know I’d have been forced to leave you stranded.’
‘Please don’t, just because I like cars, doesn’t mean I’m very good at fixing them, as you can see,’ he said with a sheepish smile towards his flat tyre. ‘But this baby, I like a lot.’ The cute guy walked over to check out Jonny’s car while she went to get the spare wheel and the jack from his boot. By the time he’d done a lap of her car, she had his car up on the jack and was lifting off the wheel.
‘Oh, hey. Thanks,’ he said, rushing to her side and then pausing. He lifted his hand and brushed it through his short, styled hair. ‘This is so wrong.’
Jonny looked up and smiled while slotting on the spare. ‘What?’
‘You…changing my tyre in that gorgeous dress. You look like you’re going out,’ he said, taking in her black heels. ‘It’s so weird. I’m in the middle of nowhere, and you just appear: this beautiful girl who’s changed my flat tyre faster than the guys at my local workshop, and I’m standing here like a wet fish,.’ He rubbed his hand against his smooth, chiselled chin. ‘Are all girls this hands-on in the bush?’
Jonny laughed as she began to tighten up the nuts. ‘Maybe.’ She studied the shocked expression on his face. He stood there uncomfortably. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure if I hadn’t come along, you’d have figured it out.’ He relaxed a little. ‘Um, would you mind just double-checking that these nuts are tight?’ she asked, giving him the wheel spanner and hopefully keeping his manhood intact. He smiled and moved to the tyre as she chucked the spare in the back. He must be into sports or working out, Jonny thought, taking in his lean backside and strong arms. And definitely a non-smoker, her mind continued. His teeth were so white and his dark hair was perfect. Who knew with these tidy city men? She’d bet her left leg that he owned more skin products that she did. Renae would be impressed.
‘Yep, all good,’ he said, standing back as she released the jack. He carried the remaining tools to the boot and stowed them away.
Jonelle brushed some of the gravel dust off her dress.
‘Well, thank you so much…?’
‘Thanks, Jonelle. I’m Daniel, and I really appreciate that you stopped to help. I think I would have been here a while doing it myself,’ he said with a grimace. He shook her hand, holding it a moment longer than normal. A tingle skittered through her palm and along her arm. Could he feel that connection, too? His hands were like silk to touch and as clean as his pressed shirt. She wondered what he thought of her hands, engraved with years of grease and dirt. Jonelle met his gaze and caught a flirty smile. It had been a while since a guy had looked at her like that, especially a stranger. This was one of those moments of instant attraction with someone you didn’t know and would never know, but you just happen to cross paths and have a sizzling spark. Even if he was a pure city boy, totally out of his element here on the side of a barren, narrow country road.
‘You’re not from these parts, are you?’ she asked, not wanting to leave yet. There was something about him that made her chest tighten with nervous excitement, maybe it was his clean good looks or the fact that he actually knew what model her car was, or maybe it was just the way he smiled at her, which left her feeling wanted, sexy and alive.
‘That obvious?’ There was that cheeky smile again. ‘I’m from Perth.’ He gestured at the endless barren pastures, ‘I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.’
His deep hazel eyes came back to her, almost drinking her in. Jonny found it embarrassing but exhilarating at the same time. ‘Nope, you sure aren’t. Anyway…’ Jonny tilted her head and glanced at her car.
‘Yeah, I better let you go. It was really nice meeting you, Jonelle. I can’t thank you enough for your help. I hope I run into you again.’ He held out his hand and she took it without hesitation. Yep, there are those tingles, she thought.
‘No worries, Daniel. I best be off – I’ve got ice-cream in the car. Nice meeting you,’ she said honestly. A pang in her chest at her departure. They were just two cars passing on the road. She turned and headed back to her car.
Jonny watched Daniel in her rear-view mirror as he stood beside his car, front door open, watching her roar off down the road. Whether it was to catch a last glimpse of her or to listen to her V8, she wasn’t sure. As she sped off, she couldn’t help but wonder where he was headed and whether their paths might ever cross again.
Now for your chance to win a signed copy of The Sunburnt Country, all you have to do to be in the draw is to answer this question in the comments.
What is your favourite car and why?
Now I have lots of favourites from my Uncle Mocka’s Ford GT, which featured in a wedding in my second book Heart of Gold, to Torana’s as you can probably tell. (My speedway cars were Torana’s but I love all muscle cars! Mustangs, Monaro’s etc) But I have a soft spot for my very first car. It was a Datsun 180B and it was brought for me for a carton of beer by our Kiwi workman Steve. (Who was our adopted big brother.) This Dato was unlicensed as it had been in a shed somewhere on a farm. We cleaned out all the mice nests, spruced it up and got it licensed. I was so proud of that orange Dato. I had to check the oil and water before I left on every trip, but it was a great first car. I also sent it into early retirement after rolling it on the gravel, but that’s why kids need an old car as their first. My next car was another Datsun which I paid $1000 for, because if we wanted a car we had to save for it ourselves.
My first car. Here she is….
My old racing Torana just after my Uncle Alan finished doing her paint job. (And my spunky hubby in the background. Ah, so young back then lol)
Now it’s your turn. I can’t wait to hear your stories.
I will draw the winner a week from today, Friday 1st Feb. 🙂