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Leaf on a Breeze

By Irene Davidson


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Copyright © 2017 by Adrienne Irene Oaks


This is a work of fiction. All characters, organisations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


To my readers:


Hello and thanks very much for reading my book. If you enjoy it, I am shamelessly trolling for good ratings and reviews so PLEASE leave a review (just rating stars or a one-line review comment will suffice if you’re not in the mood to write ...and I would really appreciate you not including plot-spoilers).


Thanks again.


Irene Davidson



Table of Contents

Prologue - Jack in the Green

One - on the road again

Two - pub music

Three - piping the bride

Four - my cara mia

Five - riding a bike

Six - (not) a dinner date

Seven- early start

Eight - breakfast of champions

Nine - nursery tour

Ten - all in a day’s morning’s work

Eleven - babe in the woods

Twelve - may day merriment

Thirteen - bound together

Fourteen - strip the willow

Fifteen - burn the knotweed

Sixteen - aye aye Cap’n

Seventeen - the green man

Eighteen - wind-blown leaf

Nineteen - almost famous

Twenty - a heartless attack

Twenty-One - heart of the matter

Twenty-Two - on the run (again)

Twenty-Three - a pre-proposal

Twenty-four - the alt-Glastonbury

Twenty-five - your children all gone

Interim

Twenty-six - a snowball

Epilogue - a promise

About the Author

Other titles by Irene Davidson

Connect with Irene Davidson

Acknowledgements

A sample of Irene’s next title: A Good Read


Dedication

My Nanna, my Mum and my Dad,

…generations of gardeners who passed a love of plants to me.


Leaflets five,

Let them thrive!

Leaflets three,

Turn and flee!

Children’s rhyme, various

Prologue

Jack-in-the-Green

In the wee small hours of the morning, Jack was busy in the garden. He had no time for sleep. Sleep was for pansies and weaklings and he was neither.

He stopped at the entrance to the orchard and took a moment to glance down at his hands, marvelling at his rejuvenated appearance. Having grown accustomed to his changed state these past years, he found this new self so much better than his previous form. It was a convenient bonus that his body required little rest as he felt that he did his best work under cover of darkness and while others were abed.

Where once he had been flesh and blood, in outward looks if not innermost attitude much like all the other folk in the woods, since his reincarnation, he was more plant than man. Should he cut himself now, green sap would run from his veins and instead of skin, he was covered with a tightly woven thatch of vines and leaves.

He did not mind the constant wakefulness, believing that it set him apart as someone special, someone different from the others -particularly that useless sleeping sylph, Liana. She who had frittered away lifetime after lifetime, dozing when she should have been establishing her kingdom. Well, he was better than she was. Much better. More exalted and of greater importance than any of the beings that dwelt either in the woods or beyond its fringes. As an added advantage, while Liana and the woodland folk dreamed, he could get up to all sorts of mischief unnoticed.

This was precisely what he was doing.

He had been looking forward to an opportunity to show off his new skills -and tonight was his night to perform a little trick that he had been practicing and perfecting for weeks.

Laying a hand on a branch of one of the most venerable of the orchard’s roses, he concentrated all his energy on encouraging the growth of the vine, willing the poison ivy that made up much of his torso and limbs to creep along and around the barbed stalk of the old rose. The thorns did not bother him at all and as the tendrils twined round each successive twiglet, he could feel his grip on the rambler growing, slowly choking life out of the stem. He applied greater pressure, squeezing incrementally until the one shoot was all but severed from the rest of the bush.

He took a deep breath, enjoying the moment. It was an undeniably heady feeling, extinguishing life, even at this level. Not that this was the first time he had taken a life, but that had been many, many years ago when he’d had an altogether different form. Watching the healthy green leaves of the rosebush turn to sickly yellow he felt a spasm akin to something exquisitely orgasmic, the waves of unadulterated pleasure increasing in amplitude as the silky petals from the flowering blooms dropped lifelessly to the ground.

Jack was well pleased …while he reluctantly acknowledged that he could not yet kill the entire plant but his abilities were growing. Slower than he’d like but nevertheless improving with each passing day. The time was growing nearer, he was sure, when he could usurp control from Liana and take up the mantel as Master over the Garden.

Much like a certain serpent in Eden, he was intent on spreading his particular brand of evil and malice with whatever authority he could obtain, sure that once he held sway in the stead of Liana and her cohorts that he would be able to move beyond the garden’s boundaries to bloom to his full deadly potential.

His thirst to hurt and harm assuaged, Green Jack unconcernedly strode away from the sickly plant. He allowed himself the remainder of the night to indulge in his favourite activity of sneaking around and spying on others as they dozed. Then spent the day happily hidden in his lair –a huge old behemoth of an oak that grew on the western periphery of the garden’s borders, close by a field that had once been set aside for travelling folk. These days it was a spot seldom visited by humans or the woodland fey and since his reawakening, he had made it his own. That the once-healthy tree was dying by degrees from his constant ministrations was of little consequence to Jack. To him it was nothing more than a convenient place to perch and practice his sinister skills.

Venturing out the next evening, he was distraught when he returned to the moonlit orchard - intent on gloating over his small victory- to find to his extreme displeasure that Liana must have passed by during the daylight hours. It had to be her …she was the only being in the garden with the power to undo his work. It appeared that the interfering sylph had healed the ancient bush, putting to rights his hard-won display of prowess and the old rose now stood whole and healthy once more.

Aggravated, Jack kicked the thorny bush with his ivy-bound foot, doing little damage to either, before he turned and stalked off into the shadows of the trees that edged the orchard. Knowing that he had greater power towards the margins of the garden’s domain than here in the centre he thought that perhaps he would head to the nursery on the far fringes of the woods where he could do harm that might stand a chance of remaining beyond the morrow. The nursery was a later addition that had been cultivated within the confines of the garden’s old walls during the years he had been …indisposed. Aside from the church and White Briars cottage, it was the one place he could safely venture. He was still unable to cross beyond the old walls. His last attempt to scale the stone barrier that marked the garden’s boundary had ended with the usual embarrassing result of him being catapulted head-over-heels back into the garden.

He refused to think about that. He shrugged, causing the leaves across his shoulders to rustle. He liked the sound so much that he shook his head a few times, creating a rippling effect in the green mantle that made up his head and torso.

Instead, he decided, he would have some fun and continue practising out of Liana’s sight. No point wasting his precious efforts working here in the heart of the garden if there was the likelihood that she would stumble upon his little displays. He had thought her too encumbered with that little brat she had borne to the human to notice his handiwork but it appeared she was still maintaining a level of vigilance in the garden spaces closest to the cottage.

Smiling meanly, he decided that this small reversal was of little import, he had plenty with which to keep himself occupied.

Whistling impatiently for his lieutenants to follow, he disappeared into the shadows of the woods.

The pair of foxes that were his most constant companions slunk along, obediently if not entirely happily, in his wake.

One

on the road again

As she panted her way along the quiet lane, Sara was pleased to see the hawthorn was in full-flower and hear the rhythmic song of a yellowhammer trilling it’s familiar ‘a little bit of bread with no cheeeese’ call. The warm spring morning had brought out all manner of birds, butterflies and flying insects to flit among the hedgerow blooms. Turning her head in the direction of the bursts of sound, she spotted the bright feathers of the songster perched in the top branches of the bushes as she ambled by.

Although the lane was edged with trees in full leaf, they were doing little to alleviate the heat reflecting off the black asphalt surface of the roadway. Feeling both the warmth and the effects of every single day that she had put off jogging for the past three weeks, Sara unzipped her long-sleeved jacket, pulled it off and tied it around her waist. Barely breaking stride, she puffed her way up the bends of the quiet lane that twisted its way out of the village up towards White Briars’ main entranceway. Having run this way countless times over the years the route was as familiar to her as her own back yard, but familiarity, she thought wryly, did nothing to alleviate the symptoms of weeks without regular exercise. She felt sure that some malign deity had visited the hill in her absence and made the gradient steeper. It certainly felt that way.

As she approached the final and steepest bend of the incline, she could feel her lungs burning and her energy levels sapping. Only fierce determination and iron willpower were keeping her from slowing to a walk.

Following her usual self-motivational routine she had started at the base of hill with “I know I can, I know I can.” This chant normally got her all the way up to the final bend but today, at no more than a third of the way, the words had changed into “…I think I can, I think I can,” altering around half-way to a breathless “…I hope I can, I hope I can,” which had taken her to the final third. Now the hopeful words of The Little Engine That Could became slower and more laboured with each passing footfall. She could barely get the short syllables out at all now, “I’m gonna die, I’m. Gonna. Die,” she uttered the words in rasping gasps as her breathing became increasingly ragged.

Head drooping tiredly, she spied the recognisable slight hump in the cracked asphalt that signified her torture was nearing an end. Heartened by the sight, she put on a last brave spurt to arrive triumphantly at the grassy knoll of the top of the rise, arms raised akimbo like a long-distance runner crossing the final tape. She collapsed in an untidy heap upon the fragrant primrose-strewn grass growing on the verge outside the gateway of what Thornden villagers had always referred to as the gypsy encampment. Growing up and living nearby most of her life, Sara had yet to see any gypsies ‘encamped’ in the space, but the field still retained the title as a remnant from some bygone era when she supposed people were less attached to their mortgages and roamed the countryside more freely. A nice romantic notion, she thought, but not for real people like her.

The light changed abruptly. The sun must have gone behind a cloud –without its heat, she felt instantly cooler. Breathing hard and semi-alert, Sara opened her eyes to narrow slits, wiping sweat away from her brow using the hem of her sleeveless sports top before shielding her eyes with the back of one hand. It was not a cloud that had blocked the sun; instead, long faded blue jeans-clad legs and sturdy boots that obviously belonged to the male of the species now obstructed her view.

Oh yay, she thought sourly, always good to have an audience at moments like this. Adding to her mortification, especially when she had just bared her stomach and her brightly coloured jogging bra to whoever was standing over her. “Oh please let that be Hamish or someone I know and not some total stranger,” she moaned quietly between gasps, her chest heaving in efforts to regain a tolerable level of oxygen.

“Sorry to disappoint.” The low, amused tones of the male voice that responded did not sound at all like that of her next-door-neighbour. “I heard you coming up the lane. Couldn’t help but, with the almighty din you were making.” The voice stopped -Sara wished he would have the decency to leave but moments later he continued, “So, what are you then? The little engine that ran out of steam?”

“Oh, verrry funny,” she said between gasps, thinking, trust me to find the joker in the pack in my wakened state. “No, I’m the infrequent jogger that’s dying here,” she wheezed. “So. Kindly. Go. Away. …and let me croak in peace.” She managed the last on one breath, before another deeply indrawn gulp of air. Her lungs were still not filling with sufficient oxygen to make any headway to normal breathing.

“That bad, aye? Well, it’s like this …sorry for the inconvenience but I was here first so if anyone’s leaving, it should be you.” He looked her over, liking what he saw. Her petite body was clad in little more than brief form-fitting shorts and a tiny tank. A light-weight, long-sleeved top she’d obviously jettisoned that was now tied low on her hips and a neon green sports bra -which she’d given him a good eyeful of when she had pulled up the thin-strapped cotton tank to mop her brow. The entire outfit, obviously intended for exercise, had the additional benefit, in his humble opinion, of leaving exposed lithe limbs lightly tanned from the unseasonal sun.

He completed his perusal as she opened her eyes. “You don’t look in that bad a shape to me but if you’re really dying, as you say you are, perhaps I should offer you your final rites before you go.” From the rattling sounds he’d heard coming up the rise, he’d been a smidgeon concerned that she might have suffered from asthma but it seemed his concern wasn’t warranted. She was merely, although quite badly, out of breath. He was considerably relieved.

“Gee thanks,” she responded dryly. Recovering a little, chest still heaving (he noted appreciatively) she sat up and leaned back on her outstretched arms. Even through half-closed lashes, she’d seen him brazenly checking her out and now openly returned the gesture.

Not too shabby, she thought. Bit over average height. Late twenties, early thirties tops. Built. Buff. That much was abundantly obvious even at first glance. He must have removed his shirt in the heat, as he was bare from the waist up. Now, faded jeans rode low on narrow hips exposing very respectable abs. He was holding what looked a lot like a horse brush in one hand. She briefly wondered why until, belatedly, she noticed a sturdy piebald-coloured horse tethered and cropping on the roadside grass behind him.

Her eyes travelled upwards, continuing her inspection. Untidy ash-blond hair that could stand trim, sunglasses pushed up over his brow, perched among his tousled locks. Despite the bright light haloing his head he didn’t look particularly ecclesiastical to her and she couldn’t make out his eyes or any other facial details that might have given her a feel for whether he might be a danger to her or not. Still, other than using the horse-brush as a potential weapon, he appeared harmless enough so she made an uncharacteristically spontaneous decision to play along with his offer. It certainly made for an interesting change in pick-up lines, assuming that’s what he’d intended.

“Might not be such a bad idea, the way I feel right now,” she replied, matching his lightly flippant tone and adopting a cringingly bad Irish accent. “Okay, here goes nuttin’ …Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been way too many weeks since me last run and I’m terribly worried I’m about to expire right here, unpardoned for not exercising regularly.”

He couldn’t help but laugh, as he made the sign of the cross with his right hand. “I’m sure your sins are forgiven, my child. Go …and jog in peace.” Absolution complete, he stood there, contemplating her still-prone form, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, are you heading towards the light?” he questioned drolly.

“No, but if you’d move out of my sunlight, I might improve my tan,” her tart reply was accompanied by a wave of her hand as she signalled for him to step aside. “And I’m fairly sure that the sign of the cross is not given with two fingers making the peace sign,” she added drolly.

He shrugged. “That’s what you get worshipping at the Church of the Winded Hippy.”

She groaned and fell back.

He laughed again.

It was a nice sound, she thought. Not that she was planning to tell him that anytime soon.

“How about I give you a hand up instead,” he held out the hand holding the brush, “oops, forgot I was grooming Cara when you came along doing your Puffing Billy impression,” he dropped the hand and proffered his other.

Taking affront, Sara ignored his offer and heaved herself to her feet. “I did not sound like Puffing Billy. …whoever he is,” she declared hotly.

“Alright then …perhaps it’s Panting Patty? Gasping Gertie? Winded Wilma?” he retorted, abruptly turning his back on her, as he picked up where he’d left off when she come huffing and puffing into view. “Take your pick. I don’t mind whichever you choose.” He unconcernedly continued brushing the horse’s back in long strokes from withers to tail. “When we heard you coming up the hill, Cara and me were thinking we’d have to throw you over her back and get you to the closest emergency room and an oxygen mask.”

From his comment, Sara assumed Cara must have been the mare’s name. She could see Cara’s soft black ears twitching back and forth, seemingly listening in on the conversation as she grazed contentedly.

Sara was in two minds whether to walk away, –she would have run, but her legs didn’t feel quite up to it yet and she didn’t need the added embarrassment of an incipient case of rubber-legs-, or accept the down-thrown gauntlet of this stranger’s insults. So much for thinking he might be a danger to her and she’d have to fight him off, she thought sourly, though somewhere among those self-same thoughts was the acknowledgement that he had a very nicely toned back to go with those ripped abs. Not that she was looking, much.

She strolled over and laid a hand on the horse’s neck, patting her smooth, warm coat before finger combing the long strands of mane. “It’s none of those. I’m short-of-breath Sara, if you must know. And you?” she tilted her head to one side, as if considering, “Belligerent Bertie? Grumpy Greg? Insulting Ivan?”

“Ha, ha. Good return. The way you lobbed that back at me, you should be on centre court at Wimbledon.” He stopped brushing and looked over the mare’s wide back at her, “You’re surprisingly close. Though I’d watch the adjectives if I were you. I’d much prefer Gypsy Greg to grumpy, if you don’t mind.” His tone altered to one of gentle remonstration, “And, for your information, if you must know, I wasn’t so much ‘grumpy’ as I was a tad worried you might have been having an asthma attack or something similar. I have a sister who almost died once when she left her inhaler at home and we were out in the middle of nowhere, trekking in the Kimberleys a few years ago. So the grumpy was more relief that you were merely out of breath and nothing worse.”

“Okay,” she nodded in understanding. If she was feeling a mite sorry she’d taken umbrage she wasn’t letting on. Instead, she picked up on his earlier statement. “Gypsy Greg?”

“Horse,” he spoke succinctly, indicating the solid mare he’d been brushing. “Caravan,” he twisted slightly and pointed across to far side of the field where a brightly painted barrel-topped wagon was nestled in the shade under a huge old oak abutting the woodland margin, “Me,” he tapped his chest, “equals gypsy. Well, for this summer at least. I’m sort of trying the lifestyle on for size to see how well it fits.”

Sara had turned in the direction of his outstretched hand, taking in the sight of the wagon. At long last there was a bona vide gypsy wagon in the gypsy camp.

“Wow,” she muttered. She wasn’t too sure whether she was impressed or not and could think of nothing better to say.

So he was ‘trying on’ the gypsy lifestyle. Nice work if you could get it, she supposed.

There had been a time in her life, years ago, when she would have liked nothing more than taking off from what she had thought of as her humdrum existence and living free, travelling the road and flitting wherever whimsy might take her. But that time was long gone and nothing more than a dim, distant memory. These days, she was a responsible mother and a successful businesswoman, with multiple demands on her time and a gypsy life was the stuff of daydreams. Still not entirely sure how to respond, she decided to steer the conversation into smoother waters, “You said something about the Kimberleys. That’s in Australia isn’t it? Way out west, so to speak? So are you from there? Australia? You don’t sound particularly Australian, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Don’t mind at all. I’ve spent a number of years in Asia and Europe so the accent has worn off some around the edges. But I can do ‘strine’ when I want to, mate.” He added a strongly nasal twang and a high rising terminal to the last words as if to prove his point.

She flinched, rubbing one ear. “Ouch. That’s okay. I believe you. You’re Australian.”

“Yep, Aussie through and through, mate, but thrilled to bits that a bonzer sheila like you believes me,” he laid it on thick, but his wide grin took the sting off the words.

“So what made you leave home and come half way round the world to ye olde southern England?” She was curious. It seemed these days that a substantial portion of the population of the British Isles was keen to fly in the opposite direction, drawn by the promise of long hot summers and intent on re-creating their version of Summer Bay or Ramsay Street.

His reply showed her that he was aware of the British penchant for Aussie soaps. “Well, it’s like this. I got turned down for lead roles in Neighbours and Home and Away and I was a mite tired of checking for Redbacks on the toilet seat.” At her taken-aback expression, he snorted with laughter, causing Cara to raise her head and flick her ears in response. He laid a hand on the mare’s neck to calm her and she went back to grazing. “Nah, not really. Can’t stand soapy dramas and I was brought up in suburban Perth where you’re more likely to be in danger from someone driving their big-ass SUV through your front garden than you are from the local wildlife.” He shrugged nonchalantly, “I guess I left home and ventured over here to earn my fame and fortune as a musician. Haven’t quite managed either yet, but I’m enjoying the journey and the scenery on my way.”

He did not add just how much he had enjoyed the scenery of her lounging on the grass at his front gate. Instead, he quit brushing to inspect a hoof, running his hand down the mare’s feathered leg and clicking his tongue to signal that he wanted Cara to pick up her foot. He tugged a hoof pick out of his back pocket and cleaned the underside with practised skill. Once done, he replaced the hoof on the ground to pick up and clean the next.

Sara admired the speed and ease with which he accomplished this. As someone with considerably more affinity with plants than animals, she had always admired those who had expertise with the animal kingdom. Generally, she drew the line at the pigeons she bred for sale at the nursery but having acquainted herself with Liana and Hamish’s greyhound, Doug these past two years, she and her son, Matthew had been discussing choosing a dog for themselves. So far, they’d not progressed beyond debating breed and gender. They were still undecided but had plans to visit the local rescue kennels in the coming fortnight to check out likely candidates.

Greg patted the horse’s wide rump. He pulled a metal tether peg from the ground and started making for the open field gate. “Don’t suppose you want to come over and see the place for yourself?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the wagon.



“Ahh,” Sara prevaricated, “rain check …perhaps another time,” she glanced at her watch, “I have to be back at work in half an hour and I’m barely going to make it as it is.” She knew she would have to forego a post-run shower until later in the evening and make do with a hurried wash if she wanted to be back behind the counter in time to let her newest staff member take a lunch break.

“Working for the man,” Greg commiserated.

Sara didn’t bother to enlighten him that being self-employed; the only ‘man’ she worked for was herself. However, in the words of the song, and leaning more towards Tina Turner than Roy Orbison, she acknowledged that she laboured every daylight hour that was available to her and often long into the night. This was the reason that she’d gone so many weeks without running. There just weren’t enough hours in a day for exercise when an infinite number of things were constantly vying for her finite time and attention.

She sighed, “Yeah, something like that.” Reluctantly, she turned back to the road.

“Perhaps I’ll see you around,” Greg said by way of farewell, his tone hopeful.

“Guess it depends how long you stay.” Gypsies, by nature, she thought did not remain in any one place for long. She was prepared to be unsurprised should the field be empty the next time she ran past its gate, whenever that might be.

“I’m not going anywhere. Not just yet, anyway.” He smiled, showing a nice set of deep dimples either side of his lips, as he slipped the sunglasses down over eyes, which she had noticed on closer inspection were a shade of what she had instantly christened ‘wolf grey’. The effect was emphasised even more by tiny flecks of gold glinting around the irises. His nose, she’d also noted looked as if it had been broken at some earlier time and set rather badly; it had a slight kink along the bridge that gave him a devil-may-care appearance. Not a bad thing on that face, she had decided. Excessive perfection got a bit stale after a while and he might have been too pretty without the added fault.

“I have some gigs nearby so might be hereabouts for a week or two, or more. Depends how things work out.”

He seemed unconcerned that his life was not planned any more than two weeks in advance. Sara couldn’t imagine how that might feel. Her planning calendar was packed full to the brim from now until mid-autumn, when things might, or might not quieten down a little before the Christmas rush.

“Oh well, it was nice to meet you, gypsy Greg. But I’ve really gotta go,” there seemed little point in continuing the conversation. It was unlikely their world’s would collide again unless she ran this way in the coming fortnight and the way things were at the nursery she doubted there would another hour free in that time to allow her to get away for exercise. She was also so late now that she would have to clamber over the wall at White Briars main gate and take the shorter woodland route back to work instead of the longer way around the lanes. She turned back to the road.

He watched as she trotted off down the gently sloping asphalt, set between high hedgerows, half wishing he’d asked for her phone number. She had a smooth running style, he noted, with long strides for such a petite woman …and a very watchable backside in those tiny shorts, he thought appreciatively.

Well, Cara mia, what do you think? She wasn’t too ugly, girl, aye what? But no worries babe, you’re still my first love,” he chatted amiably to the horse, his arm looped comfortably over her neck as they ambled back in the direction of the van.

Two

pub music

The musician dipped his head in acknowledgement of the crowd’s applause before setting aside his mandolin and reaching to pick up the water glass that Seamus, the Thornden Arms’ portly publican had kindly placed beside him. He took a long drink, easing his parched throat. It was dry work, singing and playing for an hour and a half at a stretch and he was overdue a rest, but the crowd had been enthusiastic in their response to his music and he hadn’t liked to stop.



He sat the glass down on the tiny stage, “Last one before the break,” he announced, to a chorus of disappointed catcalls. Settling himself on a stool before a mid-sized harp, he fingered a few experimental glissandos as he added, “this is a number you may have heard played by Breton master-harper Alan Stivell, a renowned Celtic-harpist and a profound influence on my music.” There were nods from a few heads at the mention of the name. From this and the response he’d had to his playing, Greg had already surmised he had a knowledgeable audience. He continued the introduction, “It’s something of a musical journey across the Gaelic lands of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Since I first heard it in a pub on the Isle of Skye, it seems entirely appropriate to play it here for you this evening in this auspicious establishment. He waved a hand to indicate the pub before positioning his hands either side of the harps’ strings, plucking the first notes. “I hope you’ll like it.”

More than a few of the pub’s patrons were obviously familiar with the music; -at the opening bars there was a considerable smattering of applause and the whoops and catcalls returned to an encouragingly enthusiastic level. Smiling briefly, Greg concentrated on his fingering, aware that the Celtic harp was a tricky beast to play and would require his undivided attention.

The piece was long and he was into the final bars when the inner door to the bar opened to admit a face he recognised. It was Sara, dressed this evening in considerably more items of clothing than on their first encounter two days before. Greg tried not to feel disappointed; jogging attire was hardly suitable for a night out at the local watering hole but a man couldn’t be chastised for wishing otherwise, he reasoned. Not that she had exactly glammed-up for a Friday night outing at the Thornden Arms pub. She was wearing black skinny jeans, a dark hoodie and bright pink Doc Martens. With her spikey blond, lime-green tipped hair she could have been easily mistaken for a teenager. The look suited her, he decided, as his eyes followed her lissom form.

Focused on finding her friends, Sara hadn’t turned her head in his direction and appeared not to have noticed who was providing the music, although she nodded her head in time with his playing as she walked. Mindful of the composition, he kept half an eye on her and half on his harping as she wended her way carefully and with studied concentration through the crowded room to a table in the far corner. There, a group of people who obviously knew her well, stood and greeted her with the close but casual familiarity of hugs and kisses before shuffling chairs this way and that to make room. She sat with her back half-turned away from him. It appeared as if she had been expected as a large glass of orange juice had already been placed on the table before her. After a moment she lifted the full glass to her lips.

The song ended just as she replaced her glass on the tabletop and was reaching to snag a chip from a basketful in the centre of the table. Claps, whoops and stomping feet erupted from the other patrons in appreciation. One hand steadying the harp, Greg stood and sketched a quick bow as Sara turned her head to see who all the fuss was about. He noted the moue of surprise on her elfin features as she recognised him and the widening of those bright lavender-blue eyes. Belatedly, she stuffed the chip into her mouth, put her hands together and clapped politely along with the rest of the audience. Greg shot her a smile, quirking an eyebrow at her underwhelming gesture and she responded with a guilty grin, raising her hands to clap louder, swallowing the chip and adding her whoops to the rest. He laughed and stretched out his hands to give another bow, before taking a step backwards and retreating towards the bar. To the chorus of disgruntled sounds, he called cheerily, “Have a heart! The muso needs a beer! I’ll be back in twenty minutes if you can stay around that long.” The crowd yahooed their approval and the din died to more normal level as they returned to their own drinks and conversations.

After a bit of back-slapping and polite conversation from an appreciative fan who insisted upon buying him a beer, Greg turned to survey the pub clientele. It had been a while since he’d played a pub but he liked doing these gigs- it kept the music real.

Inevitably, his gaze was drawn to the corner table. Sara was staring in his direction and as their eyes made contact she waved a hand to indicate that he should come on over.

Protecting his still-full glass from stray elbows with his free hand, Greg arrowed his way through the press of patrons closest to the bar then did a sort of slow slalom through the crowds of those seated at tables, arriving with most of his drink intact at the far corner.

“Hello again,” he greeted Sara.

“Hi,” she replied. “My friends would like to meet you.”

‘My friends’, he noticed, not ‘me’. He couldn’t help the tiny twinge of disappointment at the words -he’d thought he had made a little progress with her at their first meet but now was not so sure.

Greg glanced around the crowded table. A startlingly beautiful Titian-haired woman who was the goddess to Sara’s pixie sat on the banquette seat cuddling a pretty dark-haired infant on her lap. Beside her, with one arm stretched along the backrest in a manner that denoted both love and protection was a man who had to be the child’s father, the resemblance was so strong. Next to him sat a white-haired elderly gentleman. Greg noted gnarled old hands, blue veined and sun-spotted, with enlarged knuckles that suggested osteoarthritis resting on his knees. But the eyes that surveyed him from under shocking white brows were piercing and evaluating, giving him a studied once-over. Not sure why, Greg smiled pleasantly back before continuing his cursory perusal of the table’s occupants. Another couple with two children: a girl of nine or ten and a boy who might have been somewhere between five and seven, also snuggling on his mother’s lap, made up the remainder of the group.

Sara began introductions, “Greg, this is Liana and Betony McAllister.” The goddess spoke a greeting in a beautifully musical voice and little girl smiled shyly, gazing up at Greg with gorgeous lavender-blue eyes that were, he thought, interestingly, the exact shade as Sara’s. It was not difficult to foresee that when she grew up this child was going to be a looker like her mother, Greg predicted. “…and Liana’s husband Hamish; good friends of mine.” Hamish smiled and nodded hello, holding out a hand to shake. Greg leaned across to acknowledge the greeting. “And that’s my Dad next to Hamish,”

“Arffur Blaine,” the old man held out a gnarled paw, “pleased to meet ya.” Greg shook it, wincing slightly at the firm handshake. “Damn fine music you were playin’ there son.”

“Thank you Arthur. Glad you liked it.” Greg covertly massaged his hand, hoping his fingers would recover before he played the next set.

Sara cleared her throat and continued the introductions. “Oh and here’s couple of your fellow countrymen, countrywomen, oh, whatever. Meet Steve and Linda, and their children Alison and Jamie.

“Gidday mate,” Steve rose to shake Greg’s hand across the glass-strewn table while Linda remained sitting and gave a small wave.

“Uh, hi,” Greg replied. He was never quite comfortable meeting other Australians –people tended to act as if they should know one another, not comprehending just how expansive the country was.

“So, where’re you from?” Steve queried, frowning. “I can’t place ya but you look kind of familiar.”

“Nah, you won’t know me. I’m from Perth originally, but pretty much all over the place for the last ten years or so,” Greg replied noncommittally.

“Hmm, never been there …couldn’t see the point of going so far.” Steve turned to explain to the others, “Perth’s pretty much the most isolated city in the world. They act like they’re a separate country from the rest of us way over there,” he commented, smiling to take the sting from the words. Greg wanted to tell him that he could save himself the trouble of being polite as he was echoing his own thoughts on his home town. Instead, Greg smiled back, hopeful he wouldn’t have to go through the old ‘who do you know that I might know?’ routine.

“Linda and I are both Sydneyites but we live in London now,” Steve added.

“Jamie and me’re English, not Australian!” protested the girl.

“And you don’t sound very Australian,” quipped Jamie chirpily on the heels of her denial.

“James Patrick!” his mother reprimanded.

Greg thought it amusing that the little ‘Englishman’ and ‘Englishwoman’ pronounced ‘Australian’ as ‘Austrine’, proving their verbal roots were still firmly in the southern hemisphere.

“It’s okay, he’s not the first to have said that to me,” Greg smiled, staring down at Sara’s amused ‘told ya so’ expression. “Anyway, it’s nice to have made your acquaintance. I’ll leave to enjoy your drinks in peace.” He backed away and made to retreat his steps to the bar.

“Stay, don’t go.” This from Sara’s father. “Sit yerself down sonny an’ take a load off them feet.” A stool somehow materialised, passed overhand from patron to patron until it appeared next to him. Once again, everyone in the group shuffled chairs and tables to make a seat-sized space for the new addition. Bemused, Greg could do little more than sit where instructed, finding himself wedged thigh to thigh with Sara. If he’d looked up at that moment, he might have seen several self-satisfied smiles from faces among the assembly but he was busy keeping his drink from being jostled and unaware of the speculative glances.

Twenty minutes stretched into thirty as the group, in particular, Liana and Steve questioned him at length about his music. Steve, it transpired, had a rather catholic interest in diverse genres and was well-informed about Celtic, folk and world music but it was Liana who was truly conversant. It seemed to Greg that she had a deep understanding of the rhythms and history of folk music that few others he had ever met possessed. When he asked how she had acquired the knowledge, her husband suddenly joined in the conversation and adroitly changed the subject, something which Greg found a little odd since he had little to say up to that point.

“So how did you meet our Sara?” Hamish interjected in a lilting Scottish accent. Like the others, he had enjoyed the music but while curious about this stranger in their midst he had a healthy distrust of newcomers.

Greg both noted the ‘our’ and caught more than a hint of a ‘big brother’ vibe in the question. He answered, “I’m camping up by the woods and she came trotting past.” He paused as if thinking, “Well, maybe not so much trotting as gasping,” he turned his head to grin at Sara at the memory.

Responding, Sara returned his grin with a narrow-eyed stare. “It was at the top of the bendy bit of the lane and I haven’t run for ages. I was just a little out of breath,” she spoke defensively.

“If by ‘a little’ she means …argh …argh …argh,’ Greg wheezed a parody of someone desperate for oxygen that sounded a lot like Darth Vader.

“Ah, yes, our Sara loves to run,” Hamish chortled, “The first time I met her she was jogging as well. I don’t recall her being out of breath but it took weeks for the bruises resulting from that meeting to fade…”

“Intriguing,” Greg raised an eyebrow. “I sense a good story there?”

“Yes. And since it’s rather a long one, why don’t you come round for dinner tomorrow so we can tell you all about it,” only now it was Liana interrupting, “and Sara, you come too, in case we miss any salient details,” the invitation was accompanied by a beatific smile. “Bring Matthew, of course.”

Greg wondered who ‘Matthew’ might be but didn’t like to ask. Did Sara have a husband, partner, boyfriend who wasn’t here tonight? “I’d love to,” he replied, “but I’m sorry, I can’t do tomorrow. I’m playing an evening gig. How about the night after? Would that be alright?”

Sara shrugged, “Sunday, yeah, I can do Sunday, long as we’re not too late. It’s a school night.”

“No its not,” countered Liana with a hint of steel in her tone. “Monday is the May Day holiday. So no school. Remember?”

“Oh yeah, it is too,” Sara shrugged. “I’ve been too busy to think about it. Well, then dinner on Sunday will be okay.”

Greg wondered why this was an issue. Perhaps Sara really was as young as she looked? No, she’d said she had to get back to work that day they’d met, so she had to be older than school-age. It was just that it was so difficult to tell from her appearance. Her skin and eyes looked teenage-fresh and the short-cropped hairstyle wouldn’t have been out of place on a schoolgirl but he’d thought the slightly cynical world-worn attitude that she displayed suggested someone who’d lived more than a little. The way his thoughts had been leading him since their first meeting, he certainly hoped she was well out of her school years and had left her teens in the dust.

“Sunday then,” Liana directed a serene gaze towards Sara, “and Sara, perhaps you would be as kind as to collect Greg and bring him to the cottage?”

Sara had had two years to accustom herself to the diamond-hard will behind the softly-spoken voice and otherworldly countenance that Liana presented to the world at large. “He could walk through the woods, it’s not far,” she objected. “Or,” she turned wide eyes to Greg, “ride his horse.” She narrowed those eyes as she turned her head back to Liana, “he has a horse and a gypsy caravan, you know.”

“But he doesn’t know the way,” this from a complacently smiling Hamish, who had more than an inkling that his wife was playing match-maker to these two. The least he could do was assist her endeavours. For now anyway. He would make up his mind over dinner about this Greg character once he had more opportunity to check out his intentions towards their Sara.

“Oh, okay,” her reply expressing her reluctance, Sara had a strong sense she was being manipulated by these two and did not like it. To Greg, she sounded even more like a disgruntled teen agreeing to do something she didn’t want to under duress from her parents.

“Lovely. Sunday it is, then. We’ll see you at seven. There’s no need to bring anything.” Liana spoke brightly as she sat back, pleased with her efforts.

“Especially not flowers.” Sure that she was being manipulated, Sara couldn’t help but add the retort, her tone a little surly. This remark triggered several concerned glances from those around the table and pursed lips from her father, but no one commented further.

Greg wondered why flowers were unwelcome. But before he could say anything the publican tapped him on his shoulder. “You rested enough yet?” Seamus asked, “’cos we’re gonna have a riot here if you don’t play some more.” Greg turned around to see raised glasses and a roomful of expectant faces, shortly followed by the sound of feet thumping the floorboards.

He rose from the stool, bowing to the crowd. There were loud laughs and catcalls. “The natives are getting restless. No rest for the wicked. I’d better get back to work,” Greg grinned down at Sara’s slightly petulant child-like face. “Thanks ever so much for the offer to pick me up for our first date. I’ll see you Sunday evening then, if not before.” He had the satisfaction of seeing her shocked face before he followed Seamus’ wide back through the crowd, to his instruments. As he wended his way through the crowded room he imagined he could feel Sara’s pretty lavender eyes boring laser-precise holes in his back.

He played and sang the rest of his set with a lightness and sense of expectation in his heart that he recognised as the beginnings of a new personal adventure.

Three

piping the bride

“If we keep bumping into one another like this I’m going to think you’re following me.” Greg had timed the interruption to coincide with her date wandering away in the direction of the men’s loos.

“You’re in my village and I was here first, so technically, you’re the one following me,” Sara countered, replacing the dessert spoon she had picked up in readiness to eat her gooseberry and elderflower fool on the white linen tablecloth.

“Well, I’m not bothered if you’re not,” Greg smiled. Both the dessert and the woman looked good enough to eat, he thought. She had changed last night’s jeans and hoodie for a prettily feminine dress in a pale floral print. He particularly liked the way the dress played with the neckline, giving a tantalising peek at the pale mounds of her breasts. Showing off a little more flesh than the previous night’s attire was a definite improvement, he thought. There was a wrap lying over the chair back. Fortunately for him, in the warm evening air it was redundant. Dressed up, she looked less like a schoolgirl escaping from study prep and more like a woman but as he was still somewhat uncertain as to her age he did his best to keep his eyes from straying downwards. The task had not been made any easier by the sharply indrawn breath she had taken when he spoke.

Sara raised a glass of cool juice to her lips as she thought of a suitable reply -she had noted the quick flick of his eyes towards her chest and was feeling unaccountably flustered. Her fingers crept to the chair back to finger her wrap, thinking she might retrieve it but she stayed her hand. She was a grown woman, after all and could handle a little male attention. Still, nothing was coming to her conversation-wise so she drained the drink, stalling for time, all the while ransacking her mind for a safe topic.

“So this is the ‘gig’ that you were talking about last night?” It was a bit lame, but it would have to do. When he’d said he had a ‘gig’ on Saturday night, she had not thought to ask where it was and had never imagined to see, or more correctly, hear him stridently and confidently piping the bride, - an old school friend of Sara’s- into the large airy tent where her wedding breakfast guests awaited. Once inside he’d thankfully put the noisy bagpipes aside and for the last hour had been playing softly in the background as guests ate and drank their way through a sumptuous four-course banquet.

“Yeah, I got conned into it at the last minute when the band Seamus had hired all came down with some nasty virus. At least the breaks are a tad more consistent than pub gigs. I’ve got few minutes now while they get ready for speeches and cutting the cake.” He eyed her empty glass. “Can I get you another drink?” He remembered that he had seen her drinking orange juice the previous night, “Do you drink anything other than fruit juice?” There were open bottles of champagne sitting in ice buckets as well as red and white wine on the table but he could see that the wine glass at her table setting was unused. The untouched glass did little for his confidence that she was of legal age to consume alcohol.

Sara noted the tall glass of sparkling water in his hand.

“Water’s fine,” she spoke shortly. She wasn’t sure what made her say the next words; it wasn’t something she generally shared with people who were little more than strangers. “I can’t touch alcohol. I’m a recovering alcoholic.” She watched with curiosity to see how he would respond to the news.

“How long?” he asked matter-of-factly, as if she’d just told him some minor factoid about herself.

She was surprised at his casual response. Generally, it was at this point that the majority of people she’d ever shared this information with took an involuntary step backwards, as if her condition might be contagious.

Sara didn’t even need to think to answer this one, “fourteen years, almost to the day.” She’d been five weeks pregnant with Matthew when she’d quit, cold-turkey. Between the awful morning sickness and the dry horrors, it had not been a fun start to her pregnancy.

“I’m not a big drinker myself these days. I drank more when I was young but I found it was messing with my music so I limit myself to one beer when I’m playing. Most of the time I stick to water,” he brandished the glass. “Suits my voice better -but lost a few friends when I changed my habits –they seemed to think it was very un-Australian of me.” While he was speaking, he was doing a fast re-evaluation of her age. He knew alcoholics could be as young as thirteen or even younger but fourteen years sober would surely put her in her mid-twenties at the very least. He breathed out a sigh of relief that he hadn’t been guilty of thinking somewhat carnal thoughts about a teen.

She laughed. “Yeah, well, there’s no ‘one beer’ limit for me. It tends to be all or nothing …so I stick with nothing.” She angled her gaze downwards; he’d sat in the empty chair next to her, vacated by a guest gone in search of the facilities. “I do like the tartan trousers. Though why not a kilt?”

“Well, technically, I’m not a Scot and I’d feel a bit of a dweeb wearing a skirt, even when I am playing the pipes. I figure this is close enough and trews have the added benefit that no one can look up my dress when I switch to playing the harp.”

She could see he was trying hard to maintain a serious face. “Huh, word to the wise,” she held up a single finger and shook it from side to side, “don’t ever let Hamish hear you call the kilt a skirt or a dress,” she admonished. “It’ll be Braveheart all over again.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” he replied glibly, seemingly not too bothered by what the Scot might think of his opinions.

“I like these flowers,” he indicated the spray of white roses and pale blue hydrangeas in the centre of the table, “I’d swipe them to take for Liana tomorrow as a hostess gift, but you said last night she doesn’t like flowers.”

“You will not steal the flowers!” her voice rose indignantly. “I did them myself, and what’s more, I didn’t say that Liana dislikes flowers, just that she has no need of anyone to take her any.”

“But I thought all women needed flowers!” he retorted, picturing his mother, sister and previous girlfriends, “At least, all the ones I know do.”

“Not that one. She’s more than capable of providing her own,” if her tone was a little dry, she was not in the mood to apologise. Sara was still a trifle irritated at what she was fairly certain was Liana and Hamish’s manoeuvring of her at the pub. Belatedly, aware that she was saying more than she ought, she shut her mouth.

He appeared not to have noticed her slip-up, merely asking, “So you’re a florist then?” It was more of a question than a statement, “and Liana too, since she has access to more flowers than she needs?”

“No, not exactly. Well I am, among other things, but Liana’s more of an herbalist, I guess you’d say, though she’s more than that.” Just how much more was something that had, over the past two years been given out on a need-to-know basis; and he didn’t need to know. “She makes herbal remedies for my shop and does a bit of consulting work every now and then when the occasion arises.”

“Among other things? So what else do you do?”

So, he’d caught that. He was a quick study, she thought. She was relieved his questioning had moved away from Liana. Still, she could see that she’d have to watch what she said if she didn’t want to get caught out.

“Ah well, I grow those topiary plants to hire or buy,” she indicated several large pots of neatly clipped plants situated at the doors to the tent and at intervals along the tent walls, all decorated with twinkling fairy lights.

“They’re great,” his glance was admiring, “time-consuming though and a long wait for a profit. Those specimens can take years to mature.”

“Yes, depending on the species,” it appeared he knew something about topiary.

“Anything else … You said ‘other things’, plural?”

Yep, he didn’t miss much. “I run my own nursery, tearooms and garden retail outlet. Oh, and as if I don’t have enough to do already, I breed doves for sale as a side-line.” And that’s all she was going to let on for now. If he made it to dinner tomorrow he’d probably find out about the rest of her ‘interests’, especially Matthew, without her having to add anything more.

“Whoa, no wonder you never have time to get out and exercise, you’re running around like crazy already, doing all that!”

“That’s only the half of it,” she couldn’t help but bemoan. It was his fault, she decided, for getting her started. “Right now is the silly season and I’m flat out with customers wanting to refurbish their gardens after the winter. We’re open six days a week and doing online orders as well.” It seemed to her that the ‘silly season’ was getting longer every year, and whilst it was wonderful that business was booming, soon there would be no ‘off’ time for her at all. She was not sure how she would cope.

“Sounds like you need more help.” A nascent idea was starting to germinate.

“Yeah -much as I love having my business in the countryside, good help is hard to find round here. I have Liana occasionally and my Dad even less occasionally. Matthew helps out at weekends and I have a couple of part-timers but the schoolboy boy I did have helping in the yard has started university over in Bristol and is only available in his holidays now. We’re not exactly the big smoke when it comes to finding knowledgeable and qualified personnel.”

There was that ‘Matthew’ again, Hmmm. Greg hoped he was merely an employee but then why would he be invited to dinner if he weren’t something more? “You know, the nursery business used to be big around Perth. My parents ran one north of the city and I have some experience.” At Sara’s bemused expression, “I was raised in a place called Wanneroo - it was all dairy farms, market gardens and nurseries before the city expanded so fast that the suburbs started to take it over all the arable land. We grew mostly Australian natives and some exotics, but the principles are the same. You plant them, water them, feed them and pot them on as necessary.” He looked at Sara speculatively, “I’m not all that busy at the moment. I could give you a bit of a hand for a few weeks if you’d like. I’m a dab hand at grafting and pruning and I reckon I could trim topiary if I’d a mind to,” he made a snipping scissor-like gesture with his index and forefingers.

Whatever she had thought he might say that was the last thing Sara had expected to hear.

She opened and closed her mouth several times before any sound came out. “Wow. Gosh. Um.” She shook her head, flummoxed by his offer, wanting to say an immediate ‘Yes!’ but aware there could be complications. Complications were something she had no time for, particularly those of a romantic nature. She settled for, “can I think about it?”

“Yeah, mull it over and tell me what you’ve decided tomorrow at dinner. I don’t have any big gigs coming up –a few local festivals here and there but I’ve purposely kept the summer pretty free, so if you want me to give a hand, I could maybe keep the wagon here and borrow a car to drive to the gigs. I could stick around for a month or so if that would help?”


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