Authors: Elise K Ackers
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General
For a real-life romance hero, and the love of my mum’s life, my dad.
Foster’s Garage was changing. It was expanding and adapting, and it was about to welcome a new face for the first time in almost a decade. Business was so good that between the manual labour, the bookkeeping and the administration, Dean Foster was stretched thin.
Hiring someone to help was the first step towards a long-overdue, more balanced life.
Three people had expressed interest in the role, all women; two informally over a drink at the pub, and one via email, her resumé attached. He’d met the first two already, and the third was due for her interview any minute.
He was waiting for her in the new warehouse. This extension – which effectively doubled the size of the building – reminded him that progress came in many forms. Today it was a mess of exposed framework and insulation, loosely knotted wires and dusty, debris-littered concrete. Tomorrow, under his brother Ethan’s supervision, the sprinklers, heating and air units would be installed.
Looking around, Dean thought there was no limit to what could be done here. The space was expansive, and he liked the quiet assurance of things to come. Success and promise seemed to nudge alongside the girders and beams.
The whir of electric tools, the rumble of motors and the lively conversations of Dean’s three mechanics tumbled through the two open adjoining doors, and he hoped that in the not-too-distant future, this new space would have enough noise to rival all that.
Dean loved this place. He was a mechanic to his core. His father had been a mechanic, his grandfather had been a mechanic. The only stain on an otherwise unblemished canvas was the fact that his parents had died here. Otherwise, this garage would be close to perfect. And with the extension going up, things felt as if they were getting better.
Next door, the drill faltered. The shouted conversation that followed suggested that Dean’s final interviewee had arrived.
Arms crossed, hands squeezing his shoulders, he waited. He pushed his hands up his neck, over his face and through his hair, and opened his mind to looming change.
The clack-clack of a woman’s heels was foreign enough that it somehow overrode the other noises in the garage. Women didn’t often wear heels in Hinterdown, and certainly not if a trip to the mechanic was on the cards. Dean Foster was used to seeing women in sturdy farm boots, joggers or thongs. But this was an interview, and Alice Jaye had evidently decided against comfort in favour of professionalism.
He vaguely remembered her from primary school – they’d shared a peanut-butter sandwich once and he’d held her hand after she’d been stung by a bee, but she hadn’t gone on to the local high school. It was a complete mystery to him what she’d done with her life since then, but now she was back.
In some ways, this amused him.
The townspeople had barely recovered from the latest returned local – Olivia Law, nicknamed Lawless, had come home last year to endure gossip, condescension and exclusion. Sure, she’d left her mark on the town in more ways than one – namely the accidental destruction of a few school buildings – but people around here had been cruel. Just as they had been to Ethan a couple of years ago when he’d come back home.
This town was full of folks too crazy about gossip to ever truly forgive and forget. They grumbled and complained about anything and everything, and loved every second of it.
So it was Dean’s thinking that he might be about to hire the latest in a string of homeward-bound scandals. His best friend Cal’s mum would love that – Catherine O’Hara had her ear to the ground at all times.
He reminded himself that this was an interview, not a job offer, and turned on the heel of his boot.
His first thought was that Alice Jaye was going to be a mighty distraction; his second was that he was probably going to give her the job anyway. She was dressed in black suit pants, a matching blazer and a modest yet bright floral top. Where her skin showed, it was flushed pink from the winter chill. Her blonde hair was secured in a twist high on the back of her head and a pair of crystal earrings added a touch of sparkle. She carried weight on her hips, and carried it well. Dean thought of hourglasses and cuddles, and wondered if this woman might just be the embodiment of comfort; someone who’d feel good if he moved into the circle of her arms.
Dean pressed his thumb and index finger to his eyelids, mentally shook the image loose, and took a deep breath.
‘Are you okay?’ Alice asked.
He dropped his hand to his side, opened his eyes and pushed his mouth into a smile. ‘Sorry, it’s been a long morning. Nice to see you again.’ He closed the distance between them, his hand extended. She took it and shook, more forcibly than he’d anticipated.
She said,’ We have an appointment.’
‘And I’m ready for it. It’s been a long time – how are you?’
‘Fine. I’ve been fine. How have you been?’
Dean hesitated. It had been years since someone had asked him that question so casually. It was typically accompanied with a sympathetic head tilt, or the eyes made the question longer.
How have you been
stretched out to
how have you been since you lost your wife
? And he’d learned long ago that people expected a certain kind of answer. You were never supposed to say you were doing well, even if it had been over two years. Nearer to three. Apparently you were only ever supposed to be doing okay.
‘Not too bad, thanks. Let’s head into the office. I put the heater on half an hour ago, so it should be pretty warm in there.’ He led the way through the adjoining door to the reception area, then behind the shell of a long desk. Ethan was coming in later to supervise the delivery and installation of the benchtop joinery – by the afternoon this area would be fit for habitation, but for now it was best to hurry through.
When they reached his office he stepped back to let Alice move inside first. She sat in one of the worn leather seats and set her handbag on the other.
Dean rounded his desk and dropped into the wheeled office chair behind it. He tugged the printout of Alice’s resumé from under his keyboard and flattened it.
‘You’ve got a fair bit of experience,’ he said, shifting gears from old acquaintance to potential employer. ‘It says here you’re hoping to work eight-thirty to three-thirty. You’ve got kids?’
‘I’ve got two. Rowan’s ten and Nina’s eight.’
She nodded, but didn’t say anything else.
Dean blinked at her then returned his eyes to the resumé. ‘Okay. Advanced skills for a bunch of software, good, good. I see you did a course for those this year, excellent. Intermediate email, fine. You finished up with Yarram Real Estate last week – can I ask why you left?’
‘There were really long hours involved.’
The interview lasted a little over fifteen minutes and Alice’s answers remained succinct and impersonal. She offered no information about herself that Dean didn’t ask for, and she didn’t once attempt to lead the conversation. At first, this frustrated Dean. But when it occurred to him that she’d likely be the same with his customers, he came to see it as a positive thing. Better this efficient exchange of words than the alternative.
Catherine O’Hara came to mind again as he recalled the twenty exhausting minutes during which he’d attempted to pay her for something yesterday at her family-owned machinery plant and parts yard. That woman paid no mind to time, and even less to minding her own business. But if Alice Jaye wasn’t having a bad day, or quietened by interview nerves – if this was her regular demeanour – she’d get so much done. She’d greet, serve and farewell every customer in what could possibly be record time for this slow-paced country town.
When he asked, ‘How soon could you start?’ and her answer was simply, ‘Tomorrow’, he grinned.
She was doing well so far, Alice could tell. Despite her nerves, she was acting and sounding like a promising candidate. It had occurred to her more than once to elaborate, to take control of the conversation and reign it back when it moved too fast past something she wanted Dean to pay closer attention to, but she never did. It was safer to say as little as possible, lest she say the one thing he wouldn’t want to hear.
Seemingly done with his questions, Dean rose from his seat. Hoping this wasn’t the end of the interview, she shouldered her handbag and followed him out to the main space of the garage.
He was broad, she noted, her eyes on his back. His dark hair was as brown as his eyes and cut close to his head, and his angular face – so expressive, quick to swing between professional and friendly – was a far cry from the round-faced boy she remembered from primary school. He was wearing a jacket to stave off the cold, but the material stretched over well-developed arms and a strong, defined back.
Her appreciation flickered and purred.
The garage was noisy, dirty and – judging by the double roller door open to the winter winds – prone to extreme temperatures. Sweat and grime added a tang to the air as sparks flew and engines roared.
They walked past stacked barrels of oil and tyres, loose car parts and tools she could neither name nor guess the purpose of, and moved towards a car raised on blocks above a young man wearing dirty clothes and steelcap boots.
This was not where she had imagined spending her Monday morning. Had she kept her mouth shut, she’d still be at her old job. She wouldn’t have been given an ultimatum and eventually shown the door for daring to have priorities beyond her son and her work.
Yet here she was.
Alice was going to do things differently this time. Come hell or high water, she would not confess to her next employer that she had another job. If Dean Foster became that next employer, he would know only as much as she told him. Which would be next to nothing. The less people knew about her personal life, the less power they held over her. She couldn’t afford gaps in employment – not with the mortgage payments and endless costs associated with being a single mum.
She needed to leave Foster’s Garage with a job offer, or at the very least, a promise to be in touch after a few calls to nominated references.
Maybe if she’d gone to university and got herself a degree she’d have the skills for more senior roles, but she’d become a mother and a wife young and had put her family first, even when a part of it had walked out with all the money in the bank.
Following Dean’s lead, Alice ducked beneath the car hoist and stepped over a looped power cord. She didn’t glance up at the undercarriage of the Ford Falcon, nor did she show any interest in the shiny red Corvette parked nearby. A love of all things automotive probably gave an applicant an edge, but it was unlikely to be a prerequisite for the role. Small towns were run by people first, passions second.
The young man working beneath the car turned off the drill he was using, set it down and attempted to clean his grease-stained hands on the thighs of his even dirtier jeans.
Dean looked between the pair. ‘Alice, this is Danny. Daniel Peck. Youngest on the team and a whiz on the newer, more automated models.’
‘How’s it goin’?’ he asked. He had a long face and kind eyes, a strong handshake, and wore a Silverchair T-shirt that had seen better days.
‘Good. Nice to meet you,’ she answered. They smiled at each other.
Dean led her over to the Corvette next, and the mechanic sitting on a sheet laid over the front seat. When the man noticed them approaching, he stepped from the car and pushed himself gingerly to his feet.
‘Martin Gibbs,’ Dean said, ‘better known as Marty. Our loudest mouth and quickest mind, and the go-to man for mysterious breakdowns and parts failures.’
‘Mornin’,’ Marty said. If he’d had a hat Alice imagined he would have doffed it, but he settled for a handshake.
‘Marty’s been here since I was a kid; he used to work for my father. This is Alice.’
Marty narrowed his eyes at her. ‘Alice Smart, by chance?’ Before she could answer, he corrected himself. ‘No, no – Alice Jaye. That Alice Smart has twenty years on you. Where’d you go after primary school, then?’
This was met with a beat of silence, then Marty laughed. His smile enormous beneath his grey moustache, he said to Dean, ‘I like her. You have yourself a nice day, Alice Jaye.’ He inclined his head then looked at Dean. ‘Geoff’s gone to get coffee and cake for us; he won’t be back for a bit.’