Scarlett and the Model Man
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He might be the perfect model, but is he the right man for Scarlett?
When up-and-coming artist Scarlett Ash discovers the perfect model in small-town Levenham, she can't believe her luck. Her creativity abandoned her months ago and with her move to London to take up a prestigious residency fast approaching, she's desperate for a muse to bring it back.
Surfing dairy farmer Sam Greenwood is delivering milk when a gorgeous girl accosts him. Charmed by her invitation to model for a painting, Sam wants to say no. While Scarlett might be stunning, she's arty-farty weird, and he's flat out with his growing dairy business. Somehow, though, he can't resist.
As Scarlett struggles to find her way with her new work, Sam becomes determined to help. Scarlett is smart, talented and sympathetic to the unremitting toil of dairy farming, and they're both healing from failed relationships. Soon burgeoning friendship blossoms into so much more.
Knowing that London beckons and her time in Levenham is short, Scarlett resists the lure of love. She has no plans to return to Levenham, and big-hearted Sam deserves more than a brief fling followed by a quick goodbye. Except as their affair deepens, how can she leave the man who's not only given her back her passion but her heart?
Release date: March 24, 2020
Print pages: 185
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Scarlett and the Model Man
It was Crowns that started it. Scarlett had been fine until that painting. More than fine. On the biggest creative high of her career. Then she’d agreed to a charity commission and poof! A month after the artwork went up for auction, her muse evaporated like a wish-drained genie.
It wasn’t Crowns’ fault—as cutesy as it was, the painting was still accomplished and she was proud that its sale had raised thousands of dollars for local causes. It was her. Something had changed inside. Scarlett wished she knew what.
She stared at her current effort then at her palette knife. A glob of blood-red polymer paint glazed the blade’s end, making it appear more butcher’s equipment than up-and-coming artist’s. She smiled wryly at the thought. The only thing being butchered around here was her art. As for up and coming, right now Scarlett was more down and out.
Her gaze lifted again to the ugly thing she’d created, which was so lacking in life, despite the vibrant colours and thick layers of paint. Scarlett’s usual technique was delicate brushstrokes, sometimes fine felt pen, occasionally pencil or charcoal, and in rare moments dried flowers and plants or other natural media. Her work was complex and elaborate, almost labyrinthine as it wound around the shapes, mysteries and power of womanhood. One critic had called it ‘phantasmal’, like a drug-addled dream. The sort of work you could regard for hours and still not discover all its secrets.
The canvas in front of her had none of that. It was, to put it mildly, an abomination. The change in technique had led nowhere except to prove she hadn’t solved her problem. Perhaps she never would. The creativity that had lit up her mind and fed her talent since university, which had weathered passion and pain and a hundred distractions in between, was dead and showing no sign of a Lazarus-like resurrection. Not even a twitch. And its timing couldn’t be worse.
Oh, the absolute shittiness of it. The. Absolute. Utter. Complete. Shitty-bitty-arsedness of it.
With a howl, Scarlett stabbed the palette knife into the canvas and yanked down, the resulting tear ripping a scream of its own. She stabbed again and again, imitating the violin screeches from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with each blow.
On a roll, she began to dance like a boxer, lunging in for a gash, twirling to backhand a puncture, her screeches morphing into mad giggles. She bumped her worktable. The water in her brush jar sloshed dangerously. Paint tubes tumbled to the floor. Manic, she stomped on one. A geyser of red shot up her bare leg and hemmed her shorts with glossy colour.
‘Come on,’ she said, skipping sideways and gesturing at her bad art. ‘Fight me.’
But the canvas, and her muse, remained mute.
She kept up the macabre dance. The Psycho screeches morphed to an out-of-tune version of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ as she sent her work off to never-never land. The canvas was large—a two-hundred-centimetre square of quality cotton she’d stretched and gessoed herself. Scarlett’s usual canvases tended to be half that size, but she’d gone big in the hope that the increased scale would fire something inside the black-hole deadness of her creativity.
It had fired something all right. A kind of mad violence that was far too enjoyable to be healthy. Yet knowing that didn’t stop her frenzy, even when she’d reduced the canvas to shreds. She wanted to kill whatever was wrong with her, raze it until it was nothing, too. Create a void for her muse to flow back into. Besides, destroying bad art was surprising fun. Perhaps it might even prove cathartic.
As she charged for one last stab, a loud bang pounded the old dairy’s southern window. Scarlett yelped and whirled, the palette knife dropping from her hand and striking the top of her boot, where it left a red gob on her steel-capped toe.
A shadowy head bobbed against the dusty glass. Then a pair of hands cupped the window and a distorted face was thrust between them.
‘You right there?’ yelled Jed. ‘Hang on, I’m coming in.’ Next breath, her neighbour had flung open the screen door and was rushing towards her, chased by a small swarm of pesky flies. He skidded to a stop, his eyes bulging and his walnut face paling. ‘Flippin’ heck.’ Jed peeled off his t-shirt, balled it up and stretched out one arm, as though pacifying a frightened animal. ‘Steady there, Scarlett love. I’m here now. Just tell me where you’re hurt.’
Scarlett’s heart was thrashing like a drowning swimmer. Her lungs taut from fright and hungry for air, she spread her fingers across her chest to ease the ache. Taking that as a sign, Jed thrust his t-shirt over her hand and pressed hard.
‘It’ll be okay, love. I’m here. We’ll sort it, get you help. Just hold steady.’
She gulped in a breath. ‘No.’
‘Now, now, just you stay calm. Here,’ he picked up her loose hand, ‘you hold that tight while I call an ambulance. Where’s your phone?’
‘I don’t need an ambulance.’
‘It’s all right, love. I know you’re frightened and lost a lot of blood—’ He glanced down and blanched. ‘Holy Mary mother of Joseph.’
He jerked at her yell, his crinkled jowls wobbling.
‘I’m fine. It’s paint.’ She kicked at the spent tube of quinacridone crimson.
‘But I heard screaming.’
She gently pushed him away, shook off his t-shirt and held it out for him to put on. ‘It wasn’t screaming.’
‘Maybe a little bit of screaming.’ The smile she gave him was more of a sheepish wince. ‘I was having a moment.’
He regarded her with disbelief, then gave a little shake of his head and removed his gaze from hers to take in the room. The kitchenette and small lounge-dining area of the converted dairy were in their usual neat state, but her studio space looked as if a werewolf had gone mad in it.
The heavy drop sheet Scarlett had spread to protect the timber floorboards was streaked with red, the fallen palette knife lying in a large stain like a discarded murder weapon. Tongues of torn canvas drooped over the easel shelf as though panting at the bloody floor. Tubes of polymer paint littered the surrounds, most, thankfully, with their lids secure. The fountain of crimson was waste enough.
As for the flies Jed had let in, the majority had dived straight for the sticky paint and were buzzing hysterically as they tried to extricate their bogged feet.
Scarlett cringed. Admittedly, she wasn’t the tidiest of artists, but this was a new low even for her. ‘I’ll clean up, I promise.’
Jed dismissed that with a flick of his hand, his gaze still on the mess. He said nothing for a moment, lips pursing and unpursing as if working their way up to speech. ‘Is this some sort of modern art thing?’
‘No.’ Scarlett sighed. ‘Just frustration.’
‘Right.’ He nodded, still clutching his t-shirt. ‘Right. I’d … um …’ He paused to give the palette knife a worried glance. ‘I’d better get back to the girls.’ He lifted his shirt. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t be.’ She touched his arm. Jed was a nice man and she hated frightening him. He was also her landlord. With her lease now month to month, Jed and Faye could have her out with thirty days’ notice and then where would she be? The apartment wasn’t perfect—far from it with its sweatbox interior, irritating flies and unique poo smell—but it was cheap and came furnished, and she couldn’t afford the distraction of a move, not with her muse AWOL and her London residency only three months away. ‘Thanks for checking up on me.’
‘Sure. No problem.’ He pulled his shirt over his head, straightened it over his grey-haired chest and slight pot belly, and eyed the canvas again. ‘You sure you’re all right? Faye’s home, if you want to …’ He gave an awkward shrug. ‘You know. Do the woman thing.’
Scarlett smiled. ‘Thanks, but I’ll be fine. And I need to clean up.’
‘Right you are, then.’ He headed for the door, paused for a moment to look back at her, then nodded and disappeared. From the open door came the sound of his dairy herd as they plodded their way down the lane to the milking shed.
Scarlett sighed and plucked up the paint tube. Its once fat belly was caved in, its essence almost depleted. Heat prickled her eyes and her nose got that horrible leaky feeling that foreshadowed tears. She swallowed them down. Scarlett had never been the sort who cried over spilled paint or anything else for that matter, and she wasn’t about to start now. Whatever was wrong with her she had to battle, not sob over.
Besides, tears attracted flies, and she hated those little bastards.
When the studio was returned to relative order and the flies began dropping like, well, flies, thanks to a dose of chemical warfare, she made herself a cup of tea, donned a floppy fabric hat and headed outside. Unlike the past week, when yet another stinking summer heatwave had frazzled her temper further and made walking outside like entering a furnace, the day was mild. The air was redolent with the distinctive aroma of silage and cow dung, and mellow with the moos and grumbles of Jed’s herd as the first cows filtered back into the lane after milking. Beneath the radiant sun, their black-and-white coats shone like glazed porcelain.
Scarlett leaned an elbow on a rail and sipped her tea. Normally, she found the herd comforting. She loved their big, curious eyes, the pale pink of their broad nose tips, the slow roll of their bony hips and the sway of their huge udders. They seemed free of cares, and if they did have any, they’d swat them aside with a swish of their long tails.
Even their calm, slow-moving progress didn’t ease Scarlett’s mind. It was early February, and her London residency began in April. It was an extraordinary opportunity to create, learn, attend exhibitions and other events, and most importantly make contacts in the international arts community, all while living rent-free in a community environment and with utilities covered thanks to the Australian Government. Only four residencies were granted each year and competition for places was high. To be chosen was an enormous honour and a sign of faith in her talent.
Talent that had now deserted her.
Tears threatened again. Scarlett made a mewling noise as pain and unfairness threatened to overwhelm her. How was she meant to take up her residency if she couldn’t paint? She’d be a fraud, squandering not only taxpayers’ money, but faith—her own and that of those who’d believed in her.
Swallowing the burn in her throat, she studied the landscape, hunting for answers. Apart from the sprawling metal irrigation rigs and the occasional house, windmill or stand of shelterbelt trees, the view to the south was flat and featureless. Even in this rich, lower south-eastern corner of South Australia, where the seasons were milder than the rest of the state, the harsh summer sun had beaten the unirrigated paddocks to wheaten yellow and made the grey of exposed ancient limestone reefs appear silvery. She’d had several goes at painting it, but it gave no joy. Landscapes had never been her thing. People were. Women especially.
Her feminine series had been hugely successful, with collectors agitating for more, but the urge to produce those complex works had disappeared with Crowns. Now months had passed and Scarlett was still empty of inspiration. When she tried to force it, all she produced were passionless, colourful messes like that of this morning. Works as barren as she felt inside.
She caught movement in the distance. Jed’s grandson, David, heading out on a quad bike. He was a gorgeous-looking boy of eighteen, overloaded with hormones, confidence and the thrill of a life that stretched wonderfully ahead. As a twenty-nine-year-old, Scarlett hadn’t known whether to be flattered or appalled when he’d made clear his interest. She’d laughed and fobbed him off, a rejection he’d fortunately accepted with good humour.
She watched him ride, admiring the inverted triangle of his silhouette and the cute man bun his grandfather loathed but which Scarlett imagined many local teenage girls dreamed of untying. If she were younger and not so jaded, she’d probably dream the same.
David alighted to inspect something near the laneway gate, then stood with his hands on his hips, head swivelling slowly as he surveyed the farm. His gaze found Scarlett and he waved. She waved back, smiling. He really was an attractive lad. Perhaps she could paint him one day, capture that burgeoning energy. The way he seemed balanced on the precipice of adulthood, potential stretching ahead. His life’s direction unknown but calling like an adventure.
The thought ruffled something inside her. Wingbeats of excitement, reminiscent of the flutters she used to feel when she had an idea for her feminine series.
Breath suspended, she stared at David as he remounted, but her mind wasn’t on him. Her mind was on that fluttery idea. On youth versus maturity. On potential versus true power and strength. Potency. And not that of the feminine. She’d captured that multiple times already, perhaps to the point of boredom.
Masculinity, on the other hand …
A grin formed. Scarlett knew what she needed now: a man, but not just any man. She needed a model man.
And she needed him now.
‘I can’t find him,’ said Scarlett. ‘I know he must be around here somewhere, but …’ She puffed out her cheeks and released the breath in a pfff sound.
She was dining with Audrey Wallace at Restaurant Ten, Levenham’s most upmarket eatery. Scarlett would have preferred a pub meal. She wasn’t a starving artist, but she couldn’t be profligate, either. If this creative drought continued, she’d run out of works to sell and have to dig into her Felix settlement account, money she’d earmarked for emergencies only. Not just that, she needed savings for London. It was an expensive city. Even with her accommodation and utilities covered by the residency grant, she still had to eat and buy art supplies.
Fortunately, today Audrey was paying.
‘What about your sittings with Jedidiah?’ the octogenarian asked in her distinctive Queen Elizabeth II voice. The gold rope necklace and sapphire pendant around her throat made her appear nearly as rich.
Scarlett shook her head.
‘I take it Faye objects?’
‘No, I don’t think she minds. It’s me. He just doesn’t do it for me.’
It had been almost two weeks since her masculine epiphany, and in that time Scarlett had paced half the streets of Levenham in search of the perfect model. She’d wandered through car dealerships, mechanics’ workshops, agricultural suppliers. Scanned supermarkets and clothes stores. Eyed bankers and accountants and postal workers. She’d faked inquiries for plumbers, cabinet-makers and every other trade she could think of, attended a basketball game and cricket match, and even a chess match at the local library. All without success.
Levenham wasn’t a big town—around fifteen thousand inhabitants—but it was a major service centre for the district’s agricultural, forestry and fisheries industries. Young men and women from surrounding smaller towns and farms tended to gravitate there for employment, if they weren’t heading to university, jobs elsewhere or overseas adventures.
A man shortage wasn’t the problem. The problem was finding the right man, preferably one who wasn’t attached. This was a conservative community, after all. A husband or boyfriend life-modelling for another woman, no matter how professional, wouldn’t go down well. Nudity tended to have that effect.
In desperation, Scarlett had asked Jed to sit for her and he’d been kind enough to oblige, although dressed in his dairy-farming best of faded shorts and t-shirt. It had helped a little and she’d made some promising preliminary sketches, but the story she wanted to tell wasn’t that of a man in his early seventies, no matter how fit. Scarlett wanted a man in his prime, whose potency was at its peak. And she wanted him in all his glory, which was not something she could ask of Jed.
‘Doesn’t make your juices flow. I can’t say I’m remotely surprised.’ Audrey nudged her. ‘He doesn’t do it for me, either.’
‘I should hope not. He’s far too old for you.’
‘Quite,’ said Audrey, who was notorious for her appreciation of attractive young men.
They returned their concentration to their beautifully prepared meals. Scarlett’s locally caught velvet crab with roast cherry tomatoes and prawn oil had been so precisely decorated with micro herbs she’d wanted to photograph it. Knowing Audrey would disapprove, she’d refrained, though she’d taken her time before eating to memorise the design and colour combination. Audrey had declared her King George whiting with pipis in prosecco-butter sauce sublime, which was high praise from a woman many considered the town’s matriarch. And proxy lady mayoress, if the rumours about Audrey’s long affair with mayor Barry McClintoff were to be believed.
‘My grandson-in-law would fit your brief.’
‘He would. Absolutely.’ Sleepy-eyed Josh Sinclair was a gorgeous timber craftsman in his thirties. He was also married with a baby. Scarlett hadn’t had much to do with his beautiful wife, Emily, but had enough experience to know she could be as haughty as her grandmother when the mood took her. ‘I’m sure Em would have no problem at all with Josh nuding up for me in the name of art.’
‘No,’ said Audrey on a sigh. ‘She’s like her mother in that way.’
‘Nothing like you, of course.’
Audrey chuckled, then broke into a cough. Scarlett frowned. That cough sounded unpleasantly phlegmy, which was hardly surprising given Audrey’s cigar habit, but Jed had mentioned a summer flu strain that was doing the rounds. No matter how invincible she considered herself, Audrey was in her eighties and vulnerable. She was also a friend, albeit an irascible and occasionally demanding one.
The older lady caught her look and narrowed her blue eyes. ‘Don’t you look at me like that.’
‘You should stop smoking.’
‘And you should stop being judgemental.’ Audrey took a long sip of riesling and eyed Scarlett. Glaucoma in her left eye had distorted her pupil and made it appear partially collapsed. To many her stare was disconcerting, but Scarlett merely wondered if it hurt. Even if it did, Audrey was unlikely to admit to it. She was a strong woman, and Scarlett had delighted in capturing that essence on canvas, back when her creativity was alive and thriving. ‘You should be worrying about yourself rather than me.’
‘Believe me, I am.’
‘I’d offer my grandson, Digby, but Jasmine—his girlfriend, although I do wish they would hurry up and announce their engagement; this faffing about has gone on long enough, in my opinion—would be even more disapproving than Emily.’
‘Too pretty, anyway,’ said Scarlett, setting her chin on her fist. ‘I need someone good-looking without being pretty. Rough but not ragged. A perfectly imperfect man, like …’ She tried to think of an actor who’d match her criteria and instead caught sight of a man the size of a small country walking past the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. She pointed her fork in his direction. ‘He’d do.’
Audrey swivelled to look, then laughed. ‘He would indeed, but I’m afraid you’ll run into the same problem there. That’s Harold Argyle.’
Scarlett gave her a blank look.
‘It was his brother, Edmond, who nearly defeated Alice Lindner to win the Wine Show crown.’
At the mention of Alice, Scarlett’s scalp prickled. She had nothing against the girl—in fact, she’d immediately warmed to the pixie-like blonde when they’d met—but it was Alice for whom Scarlett had painted Crowns. And it was Crowns she blamed for this screw-up.
Despite knowing all about Scarlett’s problem and the cause behind it, Audrey carried on. Probably as a deliberate test of Scarlett’s mettle. ‘Delightful boy, but very shy, although his fiancée, Summer, has done wonders for his confidence.’
‘So, another one bites the dust.’
‘It’s the curse of being an attractive woman, Scarlett. Other women fear and distrust us, suspicious that we’re out to steal their men. Or that their men will want to steal us.’
‘I have no designs on stealing anyone or allowing myself to be stolen. All I want is to borrow a body for a while. Male, relatively muscular and of a certain age. He doesn’t even have to be attractive, just … potent. That’s not too much to ask, is it?’
‘I’m afraid it is when you look like you.’
Scarlett stabbed her fork into a cherry tomato half. This wasn’t helping. ‘Not something I can change.’
To her relief, they moved on to other topics. Mostly gossip about the arts community in Adelaide, where Scarlett had lived all her life before moving to Levenham after her breakup with Felix, and where Audrey maintained strong ties through her family’s Wallace Foundation charitable trust.
‘What are you going to do if you don’t find him?’ asked Audrey as they readied to leave.
‘I don’t know.’ Scarlett stared at the street. ‘Paint another Crowns in the hope it’ll cancel the curse?’
‘The only curse is the fantasy one in your mind. I suggest you try the livestock exchange. Sales are every Wednesday. You’re bound to come across a dishy farmer or stock agent there.’
‘Maybe. Or maybe I’ll keep painting Jed. Not the same, but …’ She lifted her hands.
‘Oh, do stop the misery act. It’s very unbecoming.’ Perhaps realising she’d gone too far, she patted Scarlett’s shoulder. ‘Chin up. You’ll find your man soon.’
Scarlett hoped she was right. Time was running out.
With Audrey due at the Council Chambers for a meeting and nothing better to do than search for her man model, Scarlett escorted her companion across Civic Park to the historic building. The park’s shady trees protected them from the burning sun. After almost a week of mild temperatures, another filthy heatwave had hit the district yesterday, shooting the mercury up to forty degrees. Today was slightly less but still sweltering, with the weather bureau predicting more to come.
The heat had brought out the roses. Shades of pinks, reds, oranges, purples, yellows and creams. Unfurling buds and fat double blooms with velvety petals. Even the bush bases were colourful, thanks to plantings of petunias. Any other time the hues and textures would have excited Scarlett; now she simply felt sweaty, irritated and empty.
She farewelled Audrey with a kiss and trudged back to the restaurant, where she’d left her car in the small carpark behind. Heat haze rose from its sticky asphalt. Even more heat throbbed from the concrete wall of the adjoining building. Her little hatchback’s red metallic duco shone like hot steel. Scarlett dreaded to think what the interior was like.
A ute with a fridge unit on the back and a ‘Sam’s Dairy’ logo stencilled on the side was pulled up at the rear of the restaurant, close to the kitchen. One side of the fridge unit’s double doors was open and a man with a piece of folded paper between his teeth was dragging a blue crate filled with plastic milk bottles towards him from the inside.
Scarlett’s walk slowed, then stopped, her heart thudding.
The man hoisted the crate with a grunt, biceps and shoulders bulging beneath the fabric of his tan-coloured polo shirt. His skin was finely sheened—with sweat or sunscreen, she couldn’t tell—and glowed soft gold in the sun. Light-brown curls tipped with copper caressed his stubbled jaw. With a shove of his shoulder, he closed the fridge unit’s door and disappeared into the restaurant’s rear entrance.
Scarlett’s mouth opened, closed, then opened again. A delicious shiver shot through her and she shook herself a little. Calm, she needed calm. It had been a short glimpse. Not enough time to judge properly, and the lack of wedding ring meant nothing.
But she knew. Oh, how she knew. The flutters inside her were so strong, she was in danger of winging skywards at any moment.
She’d found her model man. And he was perfect.
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