Danny Burroughs rubbed the back of his neck as he eyed his little sister Ebony. ‘A browband.’
‘Yes,’ she said, holding his gaze with the kind of freakish, wide-eyed intensity only the truly horse-mad possess. ‘A pink and blue one. You’ll have to order it.’
‘Order it? Ebs, it’s less than a week before Christmas. There’s no way they’ll get it delivered in time.’
Ebony threw him one of her ‘der’ looks and folded her arms. ‘They make them in the shop. Just tell them it’s for me and that you’ll pick it up Christmas Eve.’
‘Still a bit tight, isn’t it?’
‘A bit. But if you call in today it should be all right.’ She dropped the sneery teen act to regard him from under her lashes. ‘Please? I really want one.’
Danny sighed, aware he was being conned. Again. ‘All right.’
Although when he’d manage to fit a visit in to O’Brien’s Saddlery, he had no idea. Between his day job at Levenham Windmills and his evening shifts at the Australian Arms Hotel, he barely had time to scratch himself let alone chase pink and blue browbands. But it was his own fault for asking Ebs direct what she wanted for Christmas instead of consulting his mum, who would at least have offered alternatives. Now he was trapped.
‘Yay!’ Ebs clapped her hands and bounced up to kiss his cheek before tearing off outside, no doubt to tell her pony Hobbles the good news.
Danny shook his head. Pain in the bum, but truth was Ebs had every male member of his family crooked around her little finger. Mum — who’d learned a thing or two bringing up two boys — was made of sterner stuff, but even she was susceptible to Ebony’s charms when caught at the right moment.
But he loved seeing her happy, and Christmas was for kids and Ebs was still very much one, even if she didn’t consider herself so now she’d reached the mighty age of thirteen. ‘The accident’ — as she was sometimes secretly, fondly referred to thanks to the large age gap between the Burroughs brothers and their sister — was a joy to the family and adored by all. Something Ebs was very aware of and exploited mercilessly.
Danny glanced at the kitchen clock. Almost 6 pm. Normally the saddlery would be closed by now but it was Thursday night, and in South Australia’s country towns that meant the shops stayed open for late night shopping. If he rushed, he might make the saddlery before his shift at the pub.
A hundred and fifty metres or so back from the corner, where Levenham’s main street connected with the highway and a petrol station flashed garish yellow and red even when closed, three uninspiring shops huddled side by side like old gossips.
The first was a charity shop — its window of red-and-green-themed clothes racks and Christmas bric-a-brac half obscured by a rusting blue donation bin. Next to it was a marine supplies. The last was O’Brien’s Saddlery.
Hogging one of the four car parking spaces was a life-sized plastic display horse on trolley wheels. A pair of deer antlers were stuck to its head, while on its back — straddled and leaning back in a yee-haa pose like a bronco rider — was a Santa. Except this Santa was dressed in a blue shearer’s singlet, red shorts, and wore a bush hat with corks dangling from the brim.
Danny grinned. Someone had a sense of humour.
Every parking space in front of the shops was taken. Chucking a quick U-turn, he slid into a roadside park further up the street and got out. He had five minutes to get the browband ordered but from the look of the car park, Danny didn’t like his chances.
He strode for the door, pushed it open and was immediately hit by a blast of air-conditioning, some honey-voiced crooner singing ‘Santa Baby’, and the earthy scent of leather. He made his way to the back counter, past a grim-faced woman going through a rack of halters, and regarded the line ahead of him with frustration.
Four others waited, and from their pissed-off expressions and the way they were glancing at their watches, they’d been doing so for a while. An extremely pretty brown-haired girl was at the register, ringing up a purchase. Her lightly freckled cheeks were flushed and tendrils of hair had escaped her bun to fall around her face. She was wearing a bright red top with a cartoon reindeer on the front, the singlet’s cut revealing tanned, muscled arms and very straight shoulders. She was his age, mid-twenties maybe. A quick glance at her hands revealed no rings.
Pretty, possibly single, and here was Danny looking like a dick in a Santa suit. He could kill his boss, he really could. There was such a thing as taking the Christmas spirit too far, and Jase had done it.
‘Oh,’ said the woman Saddlery Girl was serving, holding up a finger. ‘Just one more thing.’ She dashed off, leaving the girl to smile a brittle apology at the other customers.
‘I won’t be long.’
Danny’s eyebrows lifted at the English accent, so incongruous to her freckled, summery Australianness.
‘You said that five minutes ago,’ muttered the bloke in front of Danny, throwing another look at his watch. He clocked Danny’s stupid costume. ‘Nice suit.’
Like he hadn’t been hearing that all week. But Danny never saw the point in being cranky, and it was Christmas. Season to be jolly and all that.
‘Thanks. Just spreading the cheer.’
He glanced back at Saddlery Girl and found her looking him up and down. Realising she’d been caught, she raised a single eyebrow. Danny smiled and winked, delighted when she grinned broadly in return, showing off perfect white teeth and laughter-filled golden hazel eyes.
The entire room somersaulted.
Oh man, she was pretty.
The woman customer returned with a rainbow-coloured horse lead. Danny checked his watch and muttered a quiet, very un-Christmassy curse. There was no way he was going to get served in time.
He stepped out of line, catching Saddlery Girl’s eye again as she looked up. ‘I’ll come back.’
Dismay furrowed her brow and she spread her hands in a gesture of apology.
He gave her an ‘it’s okay’ shrug. Poor thing really did look flustered. If he was quick he might be able to call back in on his break.
Luck, though, wasn’t on Danny’s side. The Arms was heaving when he arrived. Added to the usual regulars and the Thursday night shopping and payday crowd, the back bar was crammed with boisterous young singles returning to Levenham for Christmas from university or new careers elsewhere. The wait at the bar was two deep and, with darkness still ages away, likely to get deeper as people finished their outside activities and wandered in for a drink or meal.
Danny endured calls of ‘Nice suit!’ and ‘Ho ho ho!’ as he pushed towards the bar. He surreptitiously gave those he knew well the finger, the others he waved off with a good-natured grin.
He lifted the timber divider and ducked through. Thanks to Jason the publican’s un-brilliant idea, all the staff were in costume. Danny had drawn the short straw and scored Santa. Tall and rangy, with spiky dark hair and brown eyes, Danny was as far from Santa as a bloke could get. Barry, the grey-haired manager, had fared even worse as Frosty the Snowman, while Karen Simms — who’d been working at the pub almost as long as Barry — had drawn Mrs Claus. The only person who didn’t look ridiculous was Lily, one of the casual bar staff, who was as cute as a button in her elf suit.
‘No dramas?’ Danny asked Karen as he passed.
‘Not yet.’ Karen nodded to a group of barely legal young men in the back bar. ‘Might be later though.’
Danny assessed them quickly. Like Karen, experience had taught him what to look for and this lot spelled trouble. From the way Jase was observing them, he agreed.
‘I’ll keep a watch,’ said Danny.
As suspected, the night descended into bedlam. Usually Danny could manage a quick chat to mates and regulars during his shift, but the bar was so flat out he struggled to keep up with orders. When the predicted scuffle broke out around ten, Danny helped Jase heft the troublemakers out, which earned them abuse from the drunks but plenty of cheers from rest of the patrons who’d had enough of their mouthiness and spilled beers.
His break came and went. Not wanting to leave the rest short-handed, Danny took enough time for a quick drink and a few pinched chips in the kitchen, before returning to the fray. By the time the bar closed and he’d helped with the clearing up, it was well past midnight.
He drove home to his parents’ farm, exhausted and longing for Sunday and the freedom of a day to himself. It wasn’t until he was climbing wearily into bed that Danny realised he’d missed the saddlery. With a groan he tapped out a quick reminder on his phone, checked his alarm was set, and collapsed into a dead sleep.
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