Chapter One

 

AS JAKE drove along the main road out of town, the traffic was not too bad. He expected it to start flowing more smoothly as he moved out of the small shopping district, but brake lights suddenly appeared on the tailgate of the truck ahead of him, forcing Jake to slow and swerve.

He waited until the traffic began to move again, but the truck stopped and beeped. Jake frowned. Then he saw the cause of the traffic chaos. A large black-and-white dog with long fur stood in the middle of the road, panting and looking at all the cars. Everyone was driving around the dog, but as Jake watched, the dog tried to dart to the curb. A four-wheel drive narrowly missed it, and the dog slunk quickly back to the center traffic island. Ears down and looking terrified, it sat on the narrow strip of low concrete.

“You’re not going to make it through the next thirty seconds like that,” muttered Jake.

Rather than drive past and ignore the dog as everyone else did, he maneuvered deliberately close to the center island, put on his hazard indicators, then turned his car and parked at an angle across the carriageway, blocking the traffic.

He ignored the honks and angry yelling, opened his door, and carefully approached the dog. “Come here.” He didn’t want to spook it, in case it ran away from him into the traffic on the other side of the road, but he didn’t want to get bitten either. The dog waited until he was almost over to it, then took off in the other direction from what he’d expected, straight past his legs and toward his car. Jake spun around and said, “Oi!” as the animal jumped into the closest seat—the driver’s seat. Jake walked back to the car. The dog ducked its head and lowered its ears, but did not growl. He stared at it, not game to reach out to grab its collar in case it bit him. It was obviously nervous, and he had no way of knowing whether it had been hit by a car.

Jake stood back. The honking horns had stopped when the drivers behind him realized he was going to rescue the dog, but he didn’t want to keep everyone waiting. He said the first thing that came to mind. “Shove over!”

To his surprise, the dog immediately moved to the passenger’s side. Jake got back in, and the dog licked his hand. “Good dog,” he said, relieved that it hadn’t bitten him. “Smart dog,” he added. It looked like some sort of sheepdog, and it seemed happy to be in a car. He closed the door and drove off.

As Jake continued down the road, he realized the dog was very well groomed and clean. It had no stains on the white parts of its coat and brought very little “doggy” smell into the car, but whimpered as it looked out the window. He petted it cautiously, and it licked his hand again. Jake rubbed its ears and neck absently as he drove. A broken end of chain bumped his hand, and he lifted it from under the long fur to look. The chain link where it had obviously broken was worn almost as thin as paper. The dog saw something outside and put its paws on the dashboard, half standing to look, and Jake saw it was female.

Jake considered. If he took the dog to the vet or the shelter, she might catch a disease or get put down. He had no idea what her immunization status was. He decided to let the vets and shelters know he had her, and take her home. Karma, his own German shepherd, was fully immunized, so she couldn’t catch anything from this dog. It would be the safest option for the animal.

He arrived home to his low-set stone house. Attached to the house was a garage, and beside that a carport where he kept his pickup truck. He pulled into the garage, left the dog in the car while he went to put Karma in the house, then brought a leash and collected the stray. He settled her into the garage and put one of Karma’s bedding mats out for her, then checked her over for injuries. She didn’t seem to have any cuts or broken limbs and didn’t yelp when he prodded her ribs, so he found a bucket and a plate and gave her some water and dog food.

After going into the house proper, Jake closed the garage door behind him and called Delia at the shelter. He leaned on the doorway and watched to make sure Karma did not get aggressive. Karma jammed her nose into the inch-high gap under the door into the garage and huffed curiously but did not bark. A couple of times, Jake saw the other dog’s nose appear under the door, then retreat when Karma’s nose got too close.

He walked out to the kitchen and flicked the kettle on as he waited for Delia to answer the phone.

“Delia? Hi, Jake here. Yeah, how are you?”

“Fine, Jake. What can I do for you? Please don’t tell me you’ve lost Karma.”

“No, no, she’s right here. Actually I picked up a dog in the main street. Looked like it was going to get run over.”

“Oh thank goodness. I had another phone call about that. Black-and-white dog?”

“Yes! Did the owner ring you?”

“No, sorry. Just someone calling to let me know the dog was running around in traffic. They were worried it’d get run over. So you picked it up?”

“Yes. It’s fine. I’ve got her here at home. I know you’re packed to the rafters, so I thought I’d take her and look after her until I can find the owner. But everyone phones you when they lose anything, so I’m letting you know.”

“Oh, thanks, Jake! I’m sure they’ll call soon.”

“Whoever owns her, they’ve looked after her well. She’s in good condition, and her coat’s glossy. I’d say they groomed her every day.”

“They’ll show up pretty quickly, then, I suppose. Can you let me know if anyone collects her direct from you, Jake?”

“Sure.” Jake walked over to the kitchen window to do a head count of his cows as he spoke. He was still restless after the day’s work and knew from experience it would take him fifteen minutes to relax enough to sit down. After counting the cattle, he paced aimlessly about the house as the conversation continued.

“Did you hear the Gold Coast got rain yesterday?” asked Delia.

“Yeah, I was watching it on the news. Wish we’d get some up here. I sold my weaners off in November, but it looks like I might have to sell off the cows too. Prices are lousy.”

“Everyone’s selling stock—that’s why the prices are down. Denis said the big dam at his place is almost down to the level of the old pump. He took fifty to the market last week. He told me it would have been cheaper to shoot them than pay the petrol and agent’s fees to send them to market.”

“Damn.” Jake strolled back to the window and peered out at the few distant clouds near the horizon. It was late afternoon, and the light was fading, edging the clouds in gold.

Delia sighed, and Jake could hear the weariness in her voice. “Times are hard. Without the farmers spending money, a lot of businesses in town are struggling too. People are losing their businesses, their homes. A lot are leaving town. That’s why the shelter is full. Thanks for keeping this one, Jake. I know you’re busy. It’s good that you took the time to help her.”

“No problem. Catch you later, Delia. I’ll let you know if anything happens.”

“Same here. Bye.”

Jake hung up the phone and turned away from the window, then swore as he saw the door to the garage wide open. He ran out to check, then skidded to a halt as Karma and the new dog looked up innocently at him from the mat. The food was all gone.

The new dog turned and licked Karma on the ear, and Jake relaxed. He growled, “Did you open this door?” and Karma lowered her head and looked guilty. Jake shook his head. “Oh, well, you might as well both come in.”

He walked back into the house and made his coffee. Then he sat down and turned on the telly. Karma sat at his feet, and the other dog wandered around exploring the house. After a while he took both dogs outside for a walk, and then he settled back down at his computer to work.

 

 

THREE DAYS later a white car Jake didn’t know pulled into his driveway. An old couple emerged, and the black-and-white dog barked excitedly and raced out to greet them. Karma barked too, in a more threatening way, and Jake said, “Heel!” to her sternly. Her hackles remained stiffly protruding, but she obeyed. He held her by the collar and walked toward the car, then changed his mind and hooked her up to her chain, which was attached to a shady tree outside the front door.

The black-and-white dog jumped up to greet the old man, and he tottered slightly. Jake realized with a shock that the man was about ninety years old. The woman with him took his arm to steady him. Jake went to greet them. He already had no doubt they were the dog’s owners. The dog was enthusiastically licking the old man’s face and whining in excitement. The old man was in tears as he said over and over, “Hey, Sally!”

“Hello,” said Jake.

The woman, who was elegantly dressed and almost as old as the man, turned to him and smiled. “You must be Jake! Thank you so much for looking after her for us! I hope you don’t mind, but Bill here was so anxious to see her that we jumped right in the car and came straight over from the shelter. Delia’s place, you know.”

“Ah! I thought someone would call Delia eventually.”

The old man was looking on and nodding but seemed incapable of speech. His wrinkled face was wet with tears. He reached out and shook Jake’s hand and went back to hugging Sally, whose tail was wagging frantically.

The woman held out some papers and said, “Here’s her papers, to prove she’s ours.”

Jake waved the papers away. “I think I can see that.” He was surprised to find his voice thickening slightly with emotion. The touching reunion between the old man and his dog was getting to him. “Well, I expect you’ll want to take her, then?”

“Yes. We can’t thank you enough.”

“Oh, she’s been no trouble. No trouble at all.”

The woman nodded happily and opened the car door, and Sally didn’t need any encouragement to jump in. The dog gave a happy bark from the backseat, and soon they were gone.

 

 

THE NEXT day after work, Jake came home to find a fruit basket and a bottle of white wine on his doorstep. There was a photo of the old man hugging Sally, a huge grin on his face. Jake pinned it on the corkboard in the kitchen, and it made him smile every time he made a coffee. There was a note in the basket in a woman’s hand.

 

Dear Jake,

Thank you again for finding our dear Sally for us.

We took her straight to the vet and had her microchipped.

Bill’s son Carl runs the High Street Hotel, so anytime,

if you want a free meal, just go in and tell him who you are.

Again, thank you,

Judy Adamson.

 

Jake smiled and rang the number.

“Judy? Hi. Thanks for the basket. Look, I’d feel funny having lunch by myself, so maybe if you and Bill want to come and have a steak with me this Saturday?”

He listened for a minute, then smiled. “No, that’s fine. Next Saturday, then? Great. Midday, at the High Street Hotel? I’ll ring the day before to confirm, okay?”

 

 

THE FOLLOWING Saturday Jake felt odd dressed in town clothes—trousers and a collared shirt. His tie was rolled up in his pocket because he didn’t think he’d need it but wanted to put it on if Bill was wearing one. Karma was sulking in the backseat. She still hadn’t forgiven him for the bath he had given her the night before. She put her head on her paws and watched him warily.

“For the third time, Karma, we’re not going to the vet.”

Karma whined and put one paw over her face, and Jake smiled when he realized he should not have said the word “vet.” He petted her, but her big eyes were brimming with dread.

“I’m saying no, silly. That’s not where we’re going.” He gave up and put the car into gear. The sooner she got into town, the sooner she’d realize they weren’t going to the vet.

Karma stared miserably out the window until they drove straight past the vet’s, which was on the main road on the outskirts of town. Then she sat up and looked interested.

When they got to the pub, a young woman was waiting outside with Sally. Jake waved and parked the car, got out, and walked around to open Karma’s door. He snagged her leash as she jumped down, and immediately it tightened as she tried to pull him toward Sally and the woman. He tensed his arm against the pulling and held her back. “Karma! Manners!”

The woman smiled. “You must be Jake. I’m Jenna, Carl’s wife. Hi! Come on, we’ve closed off the area behind the beer garden for these two to play in.”

“Thanks, that was thoughtful of you.” Jake relaxed as he saw Karma and Sally recognize each other immediately and begin to prance and play even on the leashes.

“Carl’s inside. He’s terrified of dogs, so he left me in charge of these two.”

Jenna led him along a driveway beside the pub and out the back to a gate in a high, green paling fence. She closed the gate and padlocked it behind Jake, then let Sally off the leash. Jake released Karma, and the two dogs touched noses, tails wagging, then began exploring the small area.

“Looks like they’re fine,” said Jenna. She led Jake through another gate, across the empty beer garden, and into the dining area of the pub. Judy and Bill stood up to greet him, and there were hugs all around. A short man waved from behind the bar, and Jenna said, “That’s Carl.”

Jake gave a wave back, and they all sat back down. Jake held the chair for Judy and had to resist the urge to do the same for Bill, who looked almost too frail to pull his chair out.

“What are you having, Jake?” asked Jenna. “Judy and Bill have already ordered.”

“I’ve heard your steak is pretty good,” said Jake. “Medium rare rib fillet with salad and chips, please?”

“Coming up. What’s your poison?”

“Just water, thanks. I have fencing to do this afternoon. Better stay sober.”

Judy asked, “Did you bring Karma? I don’t see her.”

“She’s out back playing with Sally already. It was a great idea to bring her in. She’s been a bit down in the dumps since Sally left.”

“You might have to get another dog to keep her company,” suggested Bill.

“Yeah, I probably should, now that I’m so busy at work. Give her someone to play with during the day,” said Jake, thoughtfully. “So how have you two been?”

“Great. You have no idea how relieved Bill here was when we found Sally with you,” said Judy, putting her hand on Jake’s arm.

Carl closed the bar and headed over toward them but stopped when a tall figure in black motorcycle leathers pushed through the front door. “Helmet off, please!” called Carl and doubled back to serve the man.

Just as the man took off his helmet, Jake glanced over and stared. The man’s face was strong and handsome, with a hint of five-o’clock shadow and dark curls matted from where the helmet had pressed on his hair. He caught Jake’s eye, hesitated for a heartbeat, then gave a deliberate wink and walked over to the bar.

Flustered, Jake turned back to Bill and Judy. Why would the man wink at him? He heard a surprisingly low-pitched voice say, “Do you have any bottled water?”

“Yeah, mate,” said Carl, reaching for the bottom of the glass-doored fridge behind the bar.

“Make it four, please.” The man had a deep-timbered but well-modulated voice and he sounded educated.

“Er… sure.” Carl handed him the drinks, and without being asked, the man said, “Heading to Melbourne for a few weeks. It’s been a dry trip so far.”

“Oh, you from Brisbane?”

“Yes.” The man paid Carl, put three of the drinks in his helmet, then strolled over to sit on the closest available seat, which was near Jake’s group. He opened the remaining bottle and drained it, his Adam’s apple working. Jake noticed a faint whiff of leather from the man’s jacket.

“Jake, dear?”

Jake registered Judy’s voice, and dragged his attention back to her and Bill. “Sorry, what?”

“I asked how you’re doing for water out at your place. Jenna said even Denis is running out and had to sell stock.”

“I sold my cows on Thursday.”

“Oh dear,” sighed Judy. “It’s just awful, this drought.”

The man in the motorcycle leathers spoke up. “It certainly is dry on the way up here. Marylands is a dustbowl. Not a blade of grass on the ground for forty miles.”

Jake turned to find the stranger gazing into his eyes from where he sat a few feet away.

Without missing a beat, Judy graciously included the stranger in the conversation. “I know. I drove Bill down to Brisbane for his eye checkup last Saturday, and I was horrified. Those poor horses near the big blue silos outside the town were just standing there in the dust.”

“That’s Max Jensen’s place, Judy. The horses have full hay racks all the time,” Jake pointed out gently.

“You know Max?” The stranger hadn’t taken his eyes off Jake.

“Well, yeah, I used to prep his yearlings for the sales a few years ago. We’ve kept in touch. How do you know him?”

“Used to keep a racehorse with him. Beautiful animal, but I think my daughter could have outrun it.” The man smiled.

But in Jake’s head, a small voice whispered, daughter, so not gay. “Oh,” Jake said, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. It wasn’t like it should matter to Jake of all people, anyway.

The man watched him for a moment longer, then sighed and stood up. “Gotta get going if I want to make my hotel before dark.”

He nodded at Judy, who asked with a polite smile, “Don’t you like being on the road at night?”

“Love it. Unfortunately so do fifty thousand roos.”

Jake chuckled. “You’re not wrong there.”

The stranger met Jake’s gaze one last time, then gave everyone a quick, casual salute and left with his helmet full of bottled water swinging at his side. The leather pants were well-cut and hugged his legs as he walked, and the riding jacket was fairly short, showing off his trim ass.

Jake turned his attention back to the group.

Carl asked, “So, you married, Jake?”

“What? No.”

“Divorced?”

“Ah….”

Judy overrode Carl and said, “I’m sure Jake’s just waiting for the right person to come along, right, Jake?”

“Yes,” Jake lied, eyeing Carl warily.

Carl said nothing, but he had a knowing look in his eyes, and Jake turned his gaze away hastily, searching the room for something, anything, to change the subject. A beautiful upright grand piano stood against the wall opposite the fireplace, and Jake noticed a sign on it. He asked, “For sale?”

“What?” asked Jenna.

“The piano. It’s for sale?”

“Well, nobody uses it. Do you want to buy it? We’re only asking a thousand for it.”

“It’s worth about three times that much,” Jake said. “But in any case, I have one at home already.”

“Really? You play? Oh wow. The only reason it’s for sale is that nobody around here plays piano, so it’s just taking up space,” said Jenna.

Jake, hoping to get Carl’s attention off the look Jake had exchanged with the leather-jacketed stranger, asked, “May I?”

“You want to play it? Yes, of course. That would be lovely!” Jenna sounded delighted.

“Please do!” chimed in Judy.

Jake stood and walked over to the piano, calling over his shoulder, “Any requests?”

“Do you do classical?” asked Judy hopefully.

“I’m up to speed on Prokofiev and Beethoven at the moment.”

“Oh, please, that would be lovely!” exclaimed Judy.

Jenna followed him and apologized as she quickly dusted off the piano with a serving cloth. “It doesn’t get used much.”

“It might be a bit out of tune,” said Jake, and he sat down, letting his fingers drift onto the usual culprits, the E above middle C and the bass G. To his surprise, they rang true. He tried a quick arpeggio, then a scale. “It sounds fine. The Beales do keep their tuning well.”

Jake began to play, and soon the others had gathered around. He played a jaunty little piece from Prokofiev he had been practicing that week. It was about five minutes long, and Jake was surprised to hear applause when he finished. He looked back and saw a bigger group around the piano than he’d expected. Some people must have come through from the bar area in the next room.

“More!” exclaimed Judy.

“Hey, his steak’s ready. Give the man a break,” said Carl, and Jake turned to see their meals on the table.

The group of onlookers dispersed when they sat down to eat, but Carl was looking thoughtful.

Outside, a motorbike roared as it started, idled for a while, then raced away. Jake glanced out the window. Had the stranger in the black leathers been sitting on his bike all that time? If Jake had been alone in the pub, he would definitely have struck up more of a conversation with the man. There was something about him Jake found compelling. He sighed and focused on his meal, as did the others. It was delicious.

Jake finished his steak and looked up to see Carl staring at him. “What?” Carl’s constant surveillance was getting on Jake’s nerves.

“Oh, I was wondering. How many more tunes do you know?” asked Carl.

“Heaps. I’ve been playing for twenty years. Concerts and stuff until I was about fifteen.”

“What? Why don’t—”

Jake forestalled him. “Small hands. Can’t even reach an octave. I can get around it, but not to concert level.” He held up a hand.

“But you can play, right? Can you do just classical, or do you do show tunes and stuff?”

Jake smiled. “Billy Joel? Scott Joplin? Stuff like that? Sure. Why?”

Carl said, “Well, we haven’t been able to sell the piano. I was wondering if you’d like to come in and play some nights and get paid for it. Because, in case you didn’t notice, you just pulled a crowd in about five minutes. We could sure do with the extra business.”

Jake thought about it. It sounded like fun, and it would get him out of the house. His management job on the farm had turned him into a bit of an “all work, no play” type of person over the last six months, and perhaps it was time he started breaking his routine.

“All right,” said Jake. “Sounds good to me.”

“When can you start?” asked Jenna, looking excited.

“How about Friday night in two weeks? That will give me time to practice. What time should I come in?” asked Jake.

“About six?”

“Sure.”

When he left the pub an hour later, he noticed a business card tucked into his driver’s window, but he was busy saying good-bye to Judy and watching Bill edge himself carefully into the car beside Jake’s. With Karma safely in the back, Jake wound down the window to answer something Bill was trying to tell him. “What?”

Bill called in his croaky voice, “We’ll be here that Friday for dinner.”

“Good,” said Jake loudly, to allow for Bill’s poor hearing.

He wound up the window, and the card had gone. He looked around but couldn’t see it. He dismissed it, assuming it was just another card from someone trying to sell him something. Hawkers and salespeople were always leaving cards and leaflets on his windscreen when he parked in town.

 

 

THE WEATHER finally broke the next Friday afternoon as Jake pulled his car out of the farm where he worked and headed home for the evening. The rain was pelting down, the noise deafening, and the visibility poor. Jake’s spirits were high, though, because with a few more days of this, the dams would be full again. Full dams meant profitable farms and a thriving community.

He drove up his driveway a few minutes later and under the shelter of the garage. He climbed out, listening to the thunderous drumming of the subtropical downpour on the garage roof. Just as well, he thought wryly, that he had undercover parking. At least he wouldn’t get any wetter than he was. As he got out of the car, Karma greeted him and began trying to lick his hands dry when he petted her.

“Hey girl.” He smiled. She had a shimmer of rain on the outside of her thick coat, but was dry underneath. Obviously she had the common sense to get in out of the rain.

He walked in through the laundry room. Karma pushed past him as soon as he opened the door, and she skidded on the tiles in her haste to get into the house. Thankfully some coals were still glowing in the fireplace. Jake inspected them and decided they would keep their heat until he had a shower and got into some dry clothes.

Feeling much better after a hot shower, he dragged on his dressing gown and slippers and tended to the fire, adding kindling and wood until the coals caught again. Soon the fire was blazing, and he shut the glass door, feeling the warmth spread quickly through the house. Karma plopped down in front of the fire on her mat and gazed at him.

Jake opened a two-pound can of dog food, dumped it in Karma’s bowl, and watched it disappear in about twenty seconds. He shook his head at the German shepherd, and then rummaged in the cupboard for something for himself. He grabbed some beef soup and warmed it in the microwave, then dragged a chair up in front of the fire and sat. Feeling the warmth of the soup and the fire gradually permeate his half-frozen body, he finally relaxed.

It had been a hard day at work, and the only reason he was home before dark was his day had started at 4:00 a.m. A freezing cold breeze had come in about two hours into the afternoon and caught him unawares, as his jacket was back at the main work shed, and he was driving the open cab tractor. Then for the last hour, the rain had come in. He was happy, though, because he’d finally had a chance to take the manager’s role for three days, and his boss had arrived back from the business trip and been impressed at the way things were being run. When old Gerard retired at the end of the year, Jake was the most likely candidate for the manager’s position. That is, now that he had proved he was management material not just on paper, and that he could handle the day-to-day practicalities of running a production farm and managing thirty harvest staff.

He moved away from the fire—which was blazing up a little too hot now—sank into an armchair, and switched on the television.