A Daughter’s Choice, p.1
A Daughter’s Choice
Lynsey Carter hoisted her rucksack onto her back, shrugging the straps into position so the weight was distributed evenly across her shoulders. Legs stiff from sitting in a cramped position for most of the day, she used the grab handles on the seats to steady herself and walked to the front of the coach.
‘Is that your ride?’ the driver asked, eyes fixed on the strip of bitumen cutting a path through the red-brown soil as straight and black as an airport runway.
Lynsey held onto the nearest metal pole and scanned the area to the northwest, searching for her mother’s royal blue Camry. The sun sat low in the sky, a scattering of fluffy clouds casting pools of shadow over the mulga-dotted semi-arid landscape.
In the distance a flash of sunlight reflected off a moving vehicle where the road to Mindalby intersected with the Cobar to Bourke Highway.
‘That’s it.’ Lynsey watched the sedan make a U-turn then pull off the highway and onto the gravel shoulder. ‘Your eyes are better than mine. Thanks so much for letting me off here. I know it’s not an allocated stop.’
‘No worries, love. It don’t make sense for you to travel all the way into Bourke if you’re going to Mindalby.’
‘I agree with you there.’ Despite Mindalby being an hour south of Bourke some of the bus drivers weren’t so accommodating, and it had been welcome news to learn this guy was prepared to let her off between stops—on one strict proviso: somebody had to be there to meet her. He couldn’t leave a passenger stranded on the edge of the outback. Lynsey had called her mother right away.
‘I really appreciate this,’ Lynsey said with a smile. If they were in the States, she’d be giving this guy a healthy tip.
She tightened her grip on the pole as the driver began slowing the coach. Tipping. What was the going rate for tipping in the US? Another topic she needed to study up on about American culture before she moved there in a few months’ time. She took a deep breath and filed that thought away in the back of her mind. First things first. Her priority was finding out the reasons behind the Mindalby Cotton Company’s shock closure a month ago—a business that had been in the Carter family since 1966.
‘Thanks again,’ she said over her shoulder as the door swung open with a hiss. She slid her sunglasses onto her nose and tramped down the steps into the cold, dry air of the open plain, one or two degrees warmer than the coach’s freezing air-conditioning. Tugging at a few strands of hair that had caught beneath one of her straps, Lynsey trudged towards the Camry, face averted from the plume of dust kicked up by the departing coach.
A car door slammed. ‘Lynsey!’
Lynsey pulled up, pebbles sliding beneath the soles of her boots, surprised to hear her cousin’s voice. A figure materialised through the dust like a rock star surrounded by smoke from a fog machine. ‘Willow?’
‘The one and only.’ In a loose cotton blouse, floral maxi skirt and retro Indian toe sandals, Willow could have floated straight out of Woodstock.
‘What are you doing here? I was expecting Mum.’
‘Nice to see you too,’ Willow said with a grin. ‘Don’t freak, your Mum’s at home. She’s minding Atlas for me.’ Strong arms caught Lynsey in a fierce hug, Willow’s blonde dreadlocks coarse like rope against Lynsey’s cheek.
‘I wasn’t freaking. I’m surprised, that’s all.’ She squeezed her cousin as best she could within the constraints of her rucksack. Willow was right—she had freaked out for a second. The unfamiliar worry in her mother’s voice was still fresh in her mind: ‘The voluntary liquidator wants to talk to me. I can’t imagine why. Do you think you could come home for a few days?’
‘I’m always pleased to see you, Willow, you know that.’
Willow released her hold and gave Lynsey a playful punch on the arm. ‘Good trip?’
‘Long. I left Brisbane at eight this morning.’ They walked to the car and Lynsey waited while Willow opened the boot. ‘How’s life on the commune?’
‘A lot more peaceful than in town right now.’
‘I can imagine.’ Lynsey shrugged out of her rucksack, ignoring the way her stomach did a backwards roll. ‘And my gorgeous nephew?’
‘First cousin once removed you mean?’
‘No need to get technical.’
‘He’s beautiful.’ Willow’s voice took on the wondrous tone it always did when she spoke of three-year-old Atlas. ‘You’ll notice a big change in him—he’s grown a lot since Christmas.’
‘I can’t wait to have a cuddle.’ Lynsey hoisted her rucksack into the boot, secretly hoping Atlas’s sweet smell and soft skin wouldn’t set off the baby fever in her like it had in the past. At those times, she’d needed to give herself a good talking to, reminding herself that her scientific work into genetically modified crops was helping to feed the starving nations of the world. That had to be more important than a biological urge to have a baby.
‘I bought Atlas a fluffy penguin from the airport.’ She closed the boot, wishing she could shut off her rambling thoughts as easily. ‘Remember how besotted he was with the SeaWorld fairy penguins?’
‘Oh, he’ll love that, Lyns. But hey, you don’t have to buy him something every time you come home. Your mother indulges him enough.’
Lynsey side-stepped around a large grey lizard which scurried out of her way to hide beneath the nearest tumbleweed. ‘Any updates on the mill?’ she asked when they were inside the car and buckling their seatbelts.
Willow started the engine, checked her mirrors and pulled onto the highway. ‘I’ve been trying to stay out of it. The shit’s been hitting the fan for weeks on end.’
‘That’s what Mum said, though not in those words.’ Lynsey sighed. She’d wanted to come home a month ago but her mother had insisted there was little she could do while the administrators carried out their investigations.
‘It seems the mill’s been losing money for a long time, sweetheart. There’s talk your father could be broke.’
Lynsey had no idea what was going on with her father and his second wife, Yasmin. Donald Carter had shown little interest in her since he’d walked out on his family when she was sixteen, more intent on indulging his new wife than bothering with his teenage daughter. Lynsey inhaled long and deep, comforted by the familiar fragrance of her mother’s perfume lingering in the car.
‘Mum said someone had a go at her at one of the community meetings.’
‘It was that tool, Cody Nossiter. He’s always been a dipshit.’
‘He asked whether your mother’s house in St George Boulevarde had been bought with company money.’
‘Seriously?’ Lynsey’s stomach began a slow churn at the thought of the townspeople taking their anger out on her mother. ‘Mum didn’t tell me that. I think the information she’s been giving me has been heavily censored.’
‘She’s only trying to protect you. Did you have a problem getting the time off?’
‘No. Research moves slowly and I have a ton of leave built up. I can probably take as long as I like.’ She stopped herself before blurting to Willow that she’d be resigning in a few months anyway. Her plans for her Master’s degree in New York were still too uncertain to workshop with family, especially now when she was needed at home.
Lynsey bit down on her bottom lip, gaze fixed on an approaching semi-trailer. The truck appeared to be close, but the long stretch of road was deceiving to the naked eye. It would be minutes until the vehicle passed them by.
‘Your mother will be alright. She’s a strong woman. Hell, she was cool enough to take me in when Dad was terrified I was going wild.’
‘You were wild—you still are.’ Lynsey smiled at Willow who was more like a sister to her than a cousin. Willow coming to live with them when they were both teenagers had been one of the greatest things that had ever happened to her.
Lynsey sighed. She’d missed Willow. Maybe she could talk her into bringing Atlas to Brisbane for a couple of weeks when all the drama of the Mindalby Cotton Company was sorted out. It would be nice to spend as much time with them as she could, before she went away.
‘The mill’s the lifeblood of the town; it’s natural for the people to be up in arms,’ Willow said. ‘No one saw this coming.’
‘Dad would have. He’s the major shareholder. He’d know the financial position of the company better than anyone.’
‘And Yasmin.’ Willow screwed up her nose. ‘I mean “Cruella de Vil”.’
‘Oh, Willow, don’t call her that.’
‘Why not? She’s up on fraud charges. Ripping off some poor old bugger in the city. Did you hear about that?’
‘Yep. Mum told me. Still, Dad’s the major shareholder. The buck stops with him. If the mill’s gone belly up then it’s happened on his watch.’
‘I know. I’m sorry, Lyns.’
Lynsey watched the passing landscape through the passenger window, thinking back to the awful time when she’d first given Yasmin that nickname. She’d been too young and traumatised to understand it took two willing people to indulge in an affair. She’d seen Yasmin as the sole culprit, the evil stepmother who’d stolen her father. As much as she’d like to, she wouldn’t blame Yasmin for the state of the mill until all the facts were revealed.
Lynsey flinched as the semi travelling in the opposite direction roared past them. A cloud of dust and grit enveloped the car, sending small pebbles bouncing off the duco with a burst of sharp cracks. The car swayed, countering the sucking force of the truck’s slipstream.
‘Idiot,’ Willow muttered, turning on the wipers and smearing red dust all over the windscreen. ‘Julian will have that driver’s arse if he keeps that up. It’s not like him to employ cowboys.’
Lynsey swung around in her seat, heart racing, fingers gripping the armrest. Sure enough, it was a Stone’s tanker, not a semi-trailer, the familiar branding scrawled across the back: We’re only a Stone’s throw away.
‘Yes. I’m fine.’ Lynsey settled back in the seat. Taking a few deep breaths, she told herself it was the speeding truck that had set her heart pounding and not the mention of Julian’s name.
‘Have you spoken to him in the last nine years, when you’ve been home at Christmas time?’
Lynsey glanced at her cousin. It wasn’t like Willow to ask about Julian. She’d always distanced herself from their bitter breakup, insisting she was best friends with both of them and intended to stay that way.
‘We’ve exchanged a couple of frosty nods.’ She shifted in her seat, uneasy at the turn in conversation. She’d never talked about Julian to anyone, not even her mother. ‘For all I know he’s married and on the way to producing a line-up of star footballers.’
Willow smiled a little, like she suspected Lynsey was fishing for information. As if!
‘He’s not married … yet.’
‘He’s dating?’ The words slipped out before Lynsey could bite them back.
‘Caprice Newton. Remember her? A few years behind us at school.’
‘Blonde and busty.’
Irritated her cousin had aroused her interest in Julian, Lynsey watched a red dust spiral dance its way across the plain. What on earth did Willow think she and Julian would have to talk about since the life-changing ultimatum he’d given her nine years ago?
‘How many tankers does he own now?’ she asked, trying to steer the conversation away from his latest love interest.
‘Eight, plus the depot.’
Eight tankers and a fuel depot. Julian had done well for himself, but he’d never been going to stay long in the truck driver’s job he’d taken straight out of school. Street smart, and with the necessary drive to get around the dyslexia that had created problems for him at school, he’d spent endless weekends and holidays with old Mick Gleeson, learning how to pull car and motorbike engines apart and put them back together.
Lynsey massaged the back of her neck where the tension had gathered and fixed her gaze on the rolling hills in the distance. Many of the local kids she’d grown up with worked at the mill. Some of the older employees had been there since the company started. They had to be getting close to retirement. What kind of reception would she receive when she finally arrived in Mindalby, the daughter of the man who’d overseen the mill’s demise?
Then there was Julian Stone, another complication.
Eight tankers and a fuel depot. He’d broken her heart nine years ago yet she couldn’t be more proud of him. She’d never doubted his resourcefulness, always believing in his ability to turn his hand to anything he put his mind to.
She’d always had more faith in Julian Stone than he’d ever had in her.
Julian stood at his office window and watched the empty tanker roll out of the depot. According to the electronic probes which monitored the levels inside the storage tanks and sent them to the stock box on the wall behind him, the depot was at full capacity. He had 1.2 million litres of diesel, 150,000 litres of standard unleaded petrol and 150,000 litres of unleaded 95, all stored and waiting to be sold.
With the tanker gone, Julian could see across Woodburn Road to the picket line gathered outside the gates of Mindalby Cotton. This late in the afternoon only the most defiant remained. They huddled in a small group, unpaid workers and subcontractors mostly, shattered by losing their only chance to earn a living in their home town.
‘Poor buggers’, he muttered, wishing he could do more to help. Giving them access to his amenities block and plugging in a couple of powerboards so they could charge their mobile phones didn’t seem enough. The foreman and workers’ union delegate, Warren Leadbeater, had been so appreciative Julian had felt bad for ordering the extra tankers of fuel from Sydney.
But business was business.
With the mill no longer operational, many farmers had been left high and dry, forced to ship the thousands of rolls of harvested cotton lying in the fields to cotton gins in Bourke and Walgett. That meant extra trucks on the road and an increase in demand for fuel. He’d already on-sold his fuel stocks to the service stations at a reasonable profit. It was a simple case of supply and demand that he’d be crazy not to keep taking advantage of.
He rubbed a hand back and forth over his short-cropped hair. As bad as he felt for the mill workers and farmers, he had to protect the livelihoods of the twelve staff he employed, some of whom were now the sole breadwinners in the family. And the only way he could do that was to keep hi
He should have known better than to enter into that agreement with Donald Carter.
A car turned into the depot and he sighed. Trust an unexpected visitor to turn up right on closing time. He watched the blue sedan pass the two loading gantries and the maintenance shed before it turned in a slow, wide arc to park a few car spaces away from the office block’s front door. Julian peered at the car, trying to make out the driver through the tinted windscreen. Veronica Carter drove that model Camry, if she hadn’t traded it in by now. He didn’t see much of her these days, only when he ducked into her women’s wear shop to buy his mother a Christmas or birthday present.
He left his office and walked into the deserted reception area. The entry-warning buzzer rang in his ears as he opened the door. Maybe Veronica was here because of the mill. It would make sense she wouldn’t be keen on parking where the workers were congregated.
A cold breeze blew in his face and his eyes watered after the warmth of the office. He glanced at the group keeping vigil by the gate. The burly frame of Warren Leadbeater was among them. Leadbeater might be old school in the way he dealt with people, but he got things done and he had the workers’ backs. Julian doubted the man had slept since the closure.
He approached the car, intent on opening the door for Lynsey’s mother. Strange how he always thought of Veronica that way. He’d always liked her. She’d been so utterly dignified when Don left her when he and Lynsey were in Year Ten. That couldn’t have been easy. Mindalby was a small town and she’d had to put up with her ex-husband parading his younger girlfriend around—even buying a house in the same upmarket part of town. In all that time, Julian had never heard Lynsey’s mum say a bad word about Don, when many others hadn’t held back. Even when Julian had broken up with Lynsey a couple of years later, Veronica had looked sad but she hadn’t bullshitted him with platitudes, only saying, ‘I’m so sorry, Julian. You just met each other too young.’
The driver’s door swung open and Julian pulled up, surprised to see Willow Anderson climb out from behind the wheel. Had she finally taken his advice and sent that unreliable Rodeo to the wreckers? He hoped so. He hated the thought of her driving Atlas around in that pile of crap.