"Come on, Jo," Shannon said. "I heard brakes screeching. I bet that's the bus pulling in. Let's go down to the Post Office."
"Thanks for the coffee," Jo said to Suellen, plunking down some money on the counter.
"Hey, come back anytime," Suellen responded. "I'm usually here, unless I close up for a while to run into Daylesford to get supplies or do some landscaping for someone. Business is slow at times, and I can make extra money by mowing someone's yard or working in their flower garden—like mum's. I wouldn't ask her for money, though."
They got in the car and drove the block and a half to the Post Office. Emily had stepped out of the Post Office and was standing on the sidewalk engaged in conversation with two women. I guess Emily won't have to call Rose now, Shannon thought.
Jo and Shannon recognized their friend immediately. They pulled up alongside them and honked the horn and waved. Paige and Carly stepped off the sidewalk just as Jo and Shannon got out of the car. Jo stared at them and thought to herself how well-matched they were in height and build. Except for the color of their hair—Carly's was black and Paige's was brown—they looked like twin green beans off the same vine! She wondered if Shannon viewed them in the same way.
Shannon and Carly hugged each other, good friends that they were. But Paige kept her distance from Jo and reached out her hand. Jo started to shake hands with her, but then grabbed it and pulled her in close for a hug. What the heck , she thought. She knew they would never be more than friends now, since Shannon had appeared out of nowhere and entered her life. But a hug never hurt anyone.
They all started talking at the same time, discussing their trips and the stroke of luck that had put them all here together in the same place at the same time. They all knew each other, except for Paige, who had never met Shannon before.
Jo and Paige got in the back seat. Since the B&B was only a short distance away, they decided Carly should ride in front because of her new hip. One of Carly's suitcases fit in the trunk, and Jo held Carly's other suitcase on her lap. Paige held her own carry-on luggage on her lap, and they shared Carly's carry-on between them.
Suellen was standing in front of The Bakery sweeping the sidewalk as they drove past. She waved to them, and Shannon and Jo waved back.
* * * * * *
"Well, Davie boy, what do you think?" Fred asked his young guest.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many sheep in my whole life all in one place!" Davie exclaimed "These must be awfully big sheep stations." He stared wide-eyed at the vast herd of sheep that grazed the landscape a couple of kilometers outside of Clunes.
"Not as big as a lot of them, especially up around Queensland . But we have our fair share of them down here."
They stood in silence for a while watching the sheep and then Fred brought out his binoculars from the Toyota and handed them to Davie , who began focusing in on sheep even farther away. Fred said he used the binoculars for looking at kangaroos mostly.
"So you have a lot of kangaroos out here, too, do you?" Davie asked.
"Yeh. But they get along with sheep okay. Seems to be plenty of food for all of them. There are times, though, when the 'roo population gets out of control and then they have to be culled."
"Shannon stopped by the side of the road on the way back from Maryborough yesterday and said you had told her about the kangaroos," Davie said. "We were looking for them."
"Yes, I think I did mention them once or twice. I see them now and then." He really didn't remember mentioning them to Shannon , but he wasn't sure, either. He wondered how Shannon would know about the kangaroos if he hadn't said something to her. But Davie probably wouldn't see any today, because it wasn't early morning or dusk.
"How did you ever get hooked up with a man like Jeff Bannister?" Fred asked.
Davie lowered the binoculars and looked at him curiously. "What d'you mean?”
"Well, you're a young man just starting out in life, and I just kind of wondered how you came to be in the photography business."
Davie told him how Jeff Bannister had befriended him after his father died and was teaching him the basics of photography. He said he never expected to come out here on a real-life professional shoot because he didn't think he was capable enough yet.
"I think Mr. Bannister really brought me along just to keep an eye on Shannon . Not to help with the photography. I don't know why. She's perfectly capable of looking after herself." He scratched his head at his own words. Then he raised the binoculars again.
"Is that right?" Fred remarked and then became silent.
A few more minutes passed.
"I think we better be getting back to the house, Davie ," Fred said.
"I thought you were going to show me an old gold mine," Davie responded.
"We'll have to do that another day. It's too hot out here, and I'm afraid the butter will melt before we get back if we take another side trip."
After what Davie had said about keeping an eye on Shannon , Fred's mind was not focused on doing any more sightseeing today. He was wondering what sort of mischief Mr. Jeff Bannister was up to.
* * * * * *
"Rose, this is my friend Paige," Jo said, introducing her.
"And this is my friend Carly," Shannon said.
"Well, you're both welcome to the Willowbranch B&B ," Rose said, extending a hand to each of them. Her hands were not quite dry after washing a few stray dirty dishes she had picked up around the kitchen. When she finally turned loose, Carly looked at her hand and tried to shake it dry. Paige just wiped her hand on her pants. She'd had worse than water on her hands with her catering truck.
"Come on, you two," Shannon said. "We'll show you where you're going to be sleeping."
Carly and Paige followed their friends into the red room with their luggage. Shannon explained how she and Jo had decided that Carly would like a separate room because of her recent hip replacement, and she could get up and walk around without disturbing anyone. But now that Paige was here, would Carly like to switch over so she could be in the same room as Shannon ? Because either way, she wouldn't be by herself now.
Carly said, a little too quickly, "I don't think that's necessary. I'm perfectly happy with this room. I like the color red. What about you, Paige? Would you like to be in the same room as Jo?"
Paige answered, "Well, let's not disturb them where they are. They're all settled in and everything. That is, if you don't mind me being in the same room as you, Carly." She already knew what Carly's answer would be.
"Not a bit," Carly said, enthusiastically. "Is it all right with you two?" She looked at Shannon and Jo, who looked at each other and shrugged and said "yeah" together in the same breath.
Jo was delighted that Carly didn't want to trade places with her. But Shannon was wondering what was going on between Carly and Paige. Carly sat down on one bed and Paige sat on the other, and they began conversing back and forth, ignoring the other two women. Shannon and Jo stared at their two friends who seemed oblivious to their presence!
"Paige, I'd like to talk to you for a minute," Jo said.
Paige halted in mid-sentence and got up and followed Jo. "I'll be right back," she told Carly, waving. Then she added, in a lilting voice, "Don't go awa-a-ay."
Jo rolled her eyes as she exited the red room and went into the blue room. "Sit down here," she said sternly. Paige sat down next to Jo on her bed.
"What's going on?" Jo demanded. "How did you manage to fly to Australia ? You were barely making it at home with two jobs! Where did you get the money? And did your mother really die? Come on, Paige, you need to level with me."
"All right. My mother didn't really die over here. She's still alive and well and living in Indiana . And I borrowed the money from my brother. He had it to loan—he's always been the successful one in the family. He didn't ask what it was for—just wrote me a check for more than enough."
"Okay. So those questions are answered. But don't you think that was a little deceitful, Paige? I mean, I understand that you're a lesbian, but why couldn't you have waited till I got back home? You told me all along that you weren't gay."
"I don't know, Jo," Paige shrugged. "I just wanted to come. I didn't want to wait any longer. I thought you'd be excited about it."
"Well, you should have waited. You know you put me in kind of a predicament here, don't you?" Jo was still upset. "What were you thinking ?"
They heard Fred and Davie in the kitchen. Davie was excited about seeing the multitudes of sheep and was loudly and ecstatically relating his experience to Rose.
Jo looked at Paige and saw the sadness on her face and thought she had been sufficiently reprimanded for her impulsive action. She didn't want to rub it in by asking her what was going on between her and Carly. She already knew the answer to that. And there was nothing she could do about things now, anyway. Paige was here, and they might as well get on with living—
"Well, let's not talk any more about it right now," she said. "You need to give the Hamuses some money for staying here, Paige. They're really neat people. They weren't expecting you and even went to the trouble of buying a bed for you so you'd have a place to sleep."
Jo called Shannon and Carly out of the other bedroom and they all went into the kitchen where Paige and Carly were introduced to Davie and Fred.
"Well!" Alfred said exuberantly. "Now we have four women guests here. Looks like you're really outnumbered, Davie boy." He swatted Davie on the back for emphasis.
"Mr. Hamus," Paige said, "I'll pay you for putting me up as soon as I get some money exchanged. Is that all right?"
"No worries, little lady," Fred said.
Jo smiled and mouthed a silent "thank you" to Rose.
Jeff Bannister stomped in from the veranda just as everyone was sitting down at the kitchen table. Rose had pulled another chair up to the table for herself that she had taken from the dining room. When she saw Mr. Bannister come in, she started to get up and get him a chair, also, but then sat back down. He can get his own chair, she thought, if he wants to sit with us.
" Davie ," Jeff began, breathless, without even so much as breaking his stride. "I just got a call from Paul a few minutes ago, and the Caravan broke down just the other side of Bacchus Marsh. They have no idea what's wrong with it. They're having it towed back to Melbourne . So I'm going to have to go back down there and arrange for different transportation for all of our equipment."
He stopped and looked at the entourage sitting around the table. "Oh, hello, ladies," he nodded to Paige and Carly. "These are your friends?" he said to Shannon and Jo.
"Yes," Shannon said. She gestured to them. "This is Carly, and this is Paige."
"Pleased to meet you," he said, nodding his head again. Then he focused his attention back on Davie .
"I've got to get started right away. I want to get there before the traffic gets really heavy, Davie . I've got my bag already packed, and I need you to follow me out to the car."
He wheeled around and started to go out the back door and then turned back and said, "I'm sorry, Ms. Brooks, but our photo shoots will have to be delayed just a while longer." Davie hurriedly followed him out to his car which was parked in back of the B&B .
Shannon and Jo looked at each other. Paige and Carly looked at each other. And Rose and Fred looked at each other.
Paige and Carly were ignorant of what had been going on, but the other four were overjoyed and couldn't resist smiling at one another! Shannon hoped the delay wouldn't cause problems later on, but she didn't care right now. Even though she knew she should be thinking about the main reason she came to Australia in the first place—to take photographs of small towns—she had other things on her mind. Such as Jo.
All of a sudden, the boomerang hanging in her studio flashed in her mind, and a chill went up her spine.
"Well," said Rose, "that's a shame isn't it?" Fred just chuckled as he got up and reached in the fridge for a beer.
* * * * * *
" Davie , I want you to keep an eye on Ms. Brooks while I'm gone," Jeff Bannister said. "Go with her everywhere . And I mean everywhere ! Don't let her out of your sight! Understood?"
"Yes, sir," Davie answered, still wondering why. But he knew he had to obey his boss's orders this time, or he would be looking for another job very shortly.
"And don't stop and look for kangaroos this time!" Jeff emphasized as he got in his car. "I'll be back as soon as I can. We'll have to transfer all the equipment to another vehicle—if I can find one at this late hour. But it may take a couple of days."
"That's all right, sir. I'll handle everything at this end."
"I'm counting on you, Davie boy." He hoped Davie would do as he was told, but his mind right now was on the Caravan. He kicked himself for getting an older vehicle, as it was subject to breaking down at a moment's notice. But his money was running out and he couldn't afford a brand-new one. He hoped he could find something comparable—and reliable—and get back to Clunes as soon as possible. He started the engine and drove out the driveway, narrowly missing some of Rose's gigantic rose bushes.
Davie turned and walked back to the house, head held high. He was feeling all pumped up inside, because Mr. Bannister had enough confidence in him to keep things running smoothly here while he was back in Melbourne . He wasn't going to let him down this time.
* * * * * *
"Rose, do you know of a store where we can get some clothes for Jo for the outdoors, such as a hat like mine, boots, and so forth?" Shannon asked. "I'm sure there isn't any place like that in Clunes, is there?"
Shannon was ecstatic that Mr. Bannister had left. Since Jo was coming with her on her shoots, she didn't know when she'd be able to outfit Jo in the proper clothes otherwise. Especially if she'd had to start working right away.
"I wish we did have such a store here," Rose said. "But Ballarat and Maryborough and Daylesford all have good clothing stores. For women's wear, Daylesford is your best place. They have several women's clothing stores there. Suellen goes there all the time for her clothes, and most of the time they're reasonably priced, too. There should be some good bargains right now, since Christmas is almost here."
"Fred, did you say dinner was going to be at six o'clock?" Shannon asked, looking over at Fred, who had brought his beer to the table and was sitting down. She could smell the stew that was bubbling in the huge pot on the stove. Well, for sixteen people—actually twelve now, since Mr. Bannister and his three crewmen would not be here—Rose would need a huge pot! She looked at her watch. It read 2 o'clock.
Fred looked over at Rose. "I saw them at The Bakery and told them all six o'clock."
"Yeh. Six o'clock on the dot," Rose reiterated.
"Okay then. I think Jo and I will wander over to Daylesford and look up one of those clothing stores. Did she tell you she was going with me on my photo shoots?"
"Well, I sort of figured it out. I think it's a good idea. Jo should go, even though she's come a long ways for us to see each other. But we women need to stick together." She winked at Shannon and Jo, disinclined to say what she really meant because Davie had come back into the house. She wanted to voice her opinion about Mr. Bannister, but she was sure Shannon and Jo were in tune with what she meant.
"Thank you, Rose," Jo said, getting up and giving her a big hug.
"Do you two want to go with us to Daylesford?' Shannon asked Paige and Carly. "Or do you want to stay here and rest?"
"I'm for going," Paige said. "I might find some extra clothes. I only brought one suitcase, thinking there would be a Laundromat around. But I don't think there's one in this town, is there?"
"Oh, no, we're much too small of a town for such as that," Rose spoke up. "But you can use me washing machine. Of course, I hang things outside on the clothesline. We don't have a fancy dryer. In the wintertime, we spread the clothes out on racks in the house to dry by the wood stoves."
"Thanks," Paige said limply. She wasn't sure about staying at this B&B . This certainly isn't a very modern place, is it?
Carly said, "I think I can walk all right now. My hip is sort of rested up from the bus trip up from Melbourne . I was able to stretch out a little bit."
"Let's go then. Get your stuff, you two," she said to Carly and Paige. She got up from her chair. "I just have to get my camera—and my hat."
She followed on the heels of the other two girls, turning to ask Jo if she needed to take anything. Jo shook her head. She was wearing her cargo pants, and everything she needed was in her pockets.
As soon as they were all assembled, the four of them headed towards the door, waving to Rose and Fred.
"Wait a minute, Shannon . What about me?" It was Davie . He had been sitting at the counter, and had now gotten up and was blocking their way.
"What do you mean, 'what about you'?" Shannon said, staring him in the face. "This has nothing to do with you."
"I need to come, too," Davie said assertively.
"No, you don't, Davie . This is an all-girls' outing to some women's clothing stores. You would definitely be out of place. Besides that, there's no room in my car for you. Sorry."
"But...but...Mr. Bannister said...uhh, he said that, uhh...uhh." Davie was searching for words, at the same time buckling under Shannon 's glare.
"Mr. Bannister said what , Davie ?" Jo asked, looking intently at him as she moved up to stand alongside Shannon .
"Uhh...uhh. Never mind," Davie said, defeated. He turned away from them both, stepped aside and watched as the quartet of women walked out the door.
* * * * * *
Davie and Fred sat silently at the table after the four women left. After a few minutes of deep thought, Davie spoke up. "Fred, do you think you might drive me over to Daylesford?"
"Why?" Fred replied.
"I need to get a new battery for my mobile," he replied. "It's almost dead, and Mr. Bannister took the charger with him. "
"The General Store down in town stocks them things. You can pick one up there, if you want to walk a bit." He got up from the table. "Right now I have to clean out the chook pen. Do you want to come down and help me?"
"No, thanks," Davie said, disheartened. Defeated again. "I think I'll go take a nap before dinner."
"That sounds like a very good idea," Rose told him. She watched him as he sauntered down to the bungalow. She wondered what Mr. Bannister had said to Davie before he left for Melbourne .
Fred threw his beer bottle in the trash can and then walked slowly down to the chook pen. His eyes were on the ground in front of him as he wondered if he'd gotten enough feed in Ballarat for his chooks this time. They had been multiplying like rabbits, it seemed, and he should be selling the little ones he hatched instead of holding on to them until they were grown and could lay eggs. Still, eggs were a cash commodity, he reflected, and he should be glad he had some baby chicks in the long run. Of course, the male chicks he would eventually sell for a little profit, too. He didn't need more roosters.
His eyes landed on a folded sheet of paper lying on the ground close to where Mr. Bannister had parked his car. He picked it up and read what appeared to be a numbered list of towns, with a ten-year-old date beside them. At the top under the letterhead titled Scenic Visions was the name Shannon Brooks...and someone named Kim. He recognized most of the towns listed, including Ballarat, Daylesford, and Clunes, and thought it might be of some significance to Mr. Bannister, who had apparently dropped it. Maybe those were places he was going to have Shannon take photographs.
He stopped by the bungalow and placed it on the kitchen table, taking care as he opened the back door not to wake Davie , who was already snoring on the living room divan. As he closed the door, the wind whooshed in behind him and swept the paper off the table, depositing it behind the kitchen stove and out of sight.
Paige and Carly sat in the back seat of Shannon's rental car and kept up a steady stream of conversation between them, hardly noticing the landscape—or Shannon and Jo sitting in front. Carly was seated sideways, her legs stretched out across Paige's lap. Every now and then Paige would rub her hand gently over Carly's leg that had the hip replacement.
Shannon kept looking in her back mirror at them, wondering what was going on. Jo turned around and looked a couple of times herself. She leaned over to Shannon and whispered, "Paige told me over the e-mail she sent last night that she was gay."
"Ahh, so that explains it," Shannon replied. "Carly isn't entirely innocent, either. We were lovers years ago. But that never worked out and we're just good friends now. Could be a whole new romance blossoming back there, don't you think?"
At this point, Jo didn't know what to think.
Shannon spoke again. "You've never told me about Paige."
"I met Paige over a month ago where she works," Jo began. "I knew she was gay all along, but she didn't want to admit it. I thought we might hook up, but she swore up and down she was straight. So I put everything on hold and came to Australia , and was planning to follow up on my Gay-dar when I got back. I told her where I was staying so we could write back and forth. I had no idea she was going to pull a stunt like this." She looked at Shannon . " Shannon , promise you won't say anything about what I'm going to tell you—"
Shannon shook her head. "Of course not."
"Paige's mother didn't really die. Paige came over here to be with me." She was still looking at Shannon —now to see her reaction.
"Wow, it must have hit her all of a sudden—what she would be giving up if she continued to say she was not gay!" Shannon said. "No wonder she flew over here on the spur of the moment. But it's too late now. I've got you." She turned her head and smiled at Jo.
Jo thought she was going to go into orbit! She couldn't believe how happy those words made her feel.
Nevertheless, she was having difficulty with her thought processes. Everything seemed unreal. Jo didn't know if she was coming or going. Her thoughts focused around these three women she was with—as she now realized all of them were lesbians! First Shannon and then Carly, and now Paige. And she herself was a lesbian! WOW! was all she could think. She never envisioned anything like this happening when she boarded the Boeing 747 at Los Angeles a few days ago!
And what if Rosalie turned out to be a lesbian, or bi-sexual? And from the way Suellen was dressed, she might be a lesbian, or bi-sexual! Why else would she shop in Daylesford and not Ballarat or Maryborough for her clothes? I may be jumping to conclusions, but I'll cross those bridges when or if they ever come up. What a wonderful country, this Australia ! Maybe I should think of moving here. I'm sure there would be room for another yoga teacher. And maybe even another photographer. Shannon and I wouldn't have to live in Clunes especially. Maybe Melbourne . She glanced at Shannon again. No, I can't even think of the possibility of Shannon and me together. Everything is happening too fast, and I don't really know Shannon at all.
They arrived in Daylesford in less than an hour and drove up the main street and parked diagonally in the middle section. Jo's mind began to wander as she thought about being here in a town where there was a hotbed of lesbians! She could just about have her pick! But after having made love to Shannon , she wanted only her . She shouldn't be thinking any other way!
* * * * * *
"What do you think, girls?" Jo asked her friends. They had entered a women's store in Daylesford called Feminine Mysteries and she was modeling what she thought might be some pants suitable for outdoors—lightweight. Since it was summer, Jo thought they would do.
Carly and Paige started to say the pants looked really cool, when Shannon interrupted. "No, no, no!" she exclaimed. "You need something more rugged. "
“For what? Aren't you just going to shoot scenes in small towns? Why do I need something rugged around here ? It's certainly not rugged country!" She was exasperated, as she really liked the pants she had on. "And it is summer," she added for emphasis.
"I don't know, Jo, where we're going or what's going to happen. Davie was with me when I bought my clothes, and they were the rugged type of clothes, like we were going to be off to the Outback or something. He said that's what Mr. Bannister wanted me to buy. I questioned him, but he didn't seem to know what I was talking about. Actually, I thought he was ignoring me." She walked over to another rack of pants made of heavier material.
"I know Mr. Bannister is subject to change his plans at a moment's notice, but for now let's try to find some clothes more like what I have. Okay? You saw my stuff, didn't you?"
"Yes, and I thought you were crazy buying stuff like boots and flannel shirts. It's too hot here to be wearing clothes like that."
"I thought the same thing when Davie told me to 'buy this , buy that ,' when we were shopping in Sydney . But I can always use the clothes back home. At least, I got one thing I really like: my Aussie hat!" She sent Jo off to try on some pants she chose for her.
While Jo was gone, Paige and Carly finally asked what was going on. "We heard you say that Jo was going with you on your photo shoots," Carly said. "What's the deal?"
After Shannon straightened her hat on her head, she explained to them the reasons why Jo was going with her. Neither of them expressed dismay that their friends would be out taking pictures, leaving them at the B&B . They agreed it would be a wise thing to do, considering Mr. Bannister had an all-man crew.
"But we'll have time to do things together when I'm not working," Shannon hastily explained. "I know you don't want to stay by yourselves all the time, do you? With nowhere to go?"
"That's okay," Carly and Paige said, almost in one voice. "We'll manage," Carly said. She and Paige smiled at each other.
Just as I thought, Shannon mused. If Jo and I aren't even around, it doesn't make any difference to those two!
When Jo got back, saying the pants fit okay, Shannon called the sales clerk over and asked if they had a hat like hers that would fit Jo. The woman immediately walked over to another department and brought back several hats for Jo to try on.
"It has to be one just like mine ," Shannon said, picking up one hat and then another, "with the brim curled up on one side and a chin strap. And it has to have a band around it." She seized the one that was almost like here and set it on Jo's head. The only difference was that it was a slightly lighter shade of brown.
"That's just right for you!" she said, looking at Jo appraisingly.
Jo looked in the mirror and approved of Shannon 's choice. So they got the hat, and the sales clerk brought out two long-sleeved flannel shirts in Jo's size from the back room, muttering to herself about these crazy women —wanting clothes which would be unbearable to wear in the heat of the Australian summer. Jo topped the pants and shirts off with a pair of rugged hiking boots.
Paige bought a couple pairs of summer pants and two more shirts, asking what Carly thought. Of course, Carly oohed and aahed over Paige's choices, while Shannon and Jo just looked at them and shook their heads. Paige decided she'd wash her undies by hand at the B&B , but wanted other clothes. She had plenty of money left over from what her brother had given her for the plane ticket, and saw no reason why she couldn't splurge a little. Even though she could get by with what she had brought on the plane. She paid for her purchases with American dollars—not thinking—and the sales clerk never batted an eye, giving her Australian money in change.
Shannon and Carly didn't buy anything. Carly brought along enough clothes for her vacation and really didn't need more. And after Mr. Bannister had bought clothes for her in Sydney , Shannon didn't need more clothes, either.
But she insisted she buy Jo's clothes. She hadn't known in the beginning that she would have a traveling companion on her photo shoots. But now that Jo was coming with her, she didn't think Jo should have to foot the bill for more clothes. She would just write it off as "running expenses" to Jeff Bannister.
After they made their purchases, they drove down to beautiful Lake Daylesford , just on the outskirts of town. Shannon pulled up into the parking area and looked around. It had barely changed! The little restaurant attached to the visitor center overlooking the lake was still there. She and Kim had dined there once. Though small, it was very elegant. So were the prices for meals!
At one end of the parking lot was the big book shed Shannon had mentioned to Jo when they were here previously. The wooden siding on it had weathered with the passing of the years, but otherwise it looked the same.
They walked inside, and to Carly and Paige it was like they had died and gone to heaven! It was enormous! Jo liked to look at books, too—being a writer—but right now looking at books was not a high priority for her.
The four women browsed up and down the aisles, anyway—until Carly spotted a concession stand at one end of the store. "Can we stop over there for a few minutes? Paige and I haven't eaten lunch. It's been a long time since breakfast. Maybe we can get something here."
"I'm sorry," Shannon said, berating herself for her lack of sensitivity. "I never thought to ask you guys if you'd eaten. Jo and I ate lunch just before we came to pick you up in Clunes."
"Oh, look, there's some tables here, and Carly will be able to sit down," Paige said when they approached the stand. "It looks like they have quite a selection of stuff to eat. And they have coffee, too, if you two want something to drink."
Jo looked at Shannon for a decision. But Shannon 's thoughts were focused on something other than coffee. When Jo nudged her arm, Shannon turned and looked at her with a blank expression.
Shannon came out of her trance and realized that Jo had nudged her arm. "What?" she asked.
"Carly and Paige wondered if we want to have coffee with them while they get something to eat," Jo said.
But Shannon 's mind wasn't there. "Carly," she said, "would you mind if we left you and Paige here for half an hour while Jo and I go back into town for a little bit? There's something I want to do."
"No, I don't mind. Is that all right, Paige?" Carly asked.
"Sure. You can leave us here for an hour —or longer—if you want to. So don't hurry. Take your time." She smiled, wrapping her arm around Carly's.
"We need to be back at the B&B by six o'clock, and it's 4:30 right now. So we can't take much more than a half hour. That should give you plenty of time to eat something and browse around in here." She turned back to the entrance/exit door, motioning to Jo.
What's going on? Jo thought, as she followed. She stopped for just a minute as she exited the building and looked at the lake and thought how beautiful it would be if they could sit and watch the swans swimming out there and have a picnic lunch—if they'd brought a picnic lunch. The lake was so still—not a ripple disturbed the surface. There were picnic tables down by the lakeside. And a playground where children could play. She didn't want to leave this serene place.
Shannon seemed to read her mind when she noticed her interest in the lake. "They have black swans as well—about the only place around here you'll see black swans. Come on. Then we'll come back here and sit for a while. I promise. But I want to take you somewhere else first." She was determined, as she hooked her arm into Jo's elbow, and they walked to the car together.
They drove back into town, and after they went past the Post Office and most of the main businesses, Shannon made a left turn and pulled up in front of The Ice Cream Parlor . She told Jo she had seen an advertisement in the morning Advocate newspaper at the B&B —one of the local weekly newspapers for the area—that they were having a sale on ice cream cones today.
But a different reason brought Shannon here. An ice cream cone was just a convenient cover-up. She wondered if her old friends were still here and she couldn't leave town without seeing them. At least, that's what she told herself. She had sensed the urgency of seeing them as she stood in the book shed, but had no idea why. Once again, she'd given in to following these feelings. She'd been doing that a lot lately.
Jo was surprised that they left the book shed in order to give in to Shannon's whimsical fantasy of having ice cream, because it was so close to dinnertime. Even if the day was hot. She didn't think it was a good idea, but her mouth was watering, too.
They got out of the car and went inside, enjoying the deliciously cool air-conditioning that greeted them when they opened the door. The coolness, plus the Christmas decorations scattered about, gave the appearance of Christmastime like it would have been back home, where the cold weather didn't deter anyone from enjoying ice cream!
They walked up to the counter and stood there waiting while someone ahead of them was being served. Shannon took off her hat. When a woman wandered over and asked her what she'd like, Shannon said, "Hello, Tammi Sue."
The woman's mouth dropped open. "Well, good Lord!" she said in a deep southern drawl. "If it isn't Shannon Brooks! We haven't seen you in a coon's age! How long has it been? Ten Years?" She came around in front of the counter, then turned and hollered, "Joyce! Come over here and see who the cats drug in."
Another woman looked up from where she had been wiping up behind the counter at the other end. "Oh...my...God!" she exclaimed. "Is it really you , Shannon? We didn't think we'd ever see you again!"
Tears started running down her cheeks as she dashed out from behind the counter, grabbed Shannon up in her arms and started hugging her and crying into Shannon 's hair, which conveniently muffled her words. "Baby, I'm so glad to see you. We didn't know what had happened to you when Kim came back here without you. She has never told us anything !"
Shannon started leaking tears, too, as she remembered her lesbian friends of many years ago, and how kind they had both been to her and Kim. Tammi Sue, not to be left out, got her share of hugs in, too.
They finally broke apart, and Shannon introduced Jo, who had been standing there, embarrassingly watching the action unfold. Jo said, "Pleased to meet you," in her low, husky voice, as she took off her new Aussie hat.
Tammie Sue and Joyce both stared at Jo. They were at a loss for words. The awkwardness was finally broken as Tammy Sue said, "Well, Jo, we're pleased to meet you. Any friend of Shannon 's is a friend of ours." She reached out her hand and shook Jo's hand. Joyce shook Jo's hand, too, and then went back to the counter to wait on a customer.
"Y'all come on over here and sit down," Tammi Sue said, as she led the way to a corner table near the back. Her graying hair was straggling down at the side. She reached up and unloosened her ponytail, pulled in the stray hairs and fastened it back up. "Let me treat you both to anything you want. We have a special on cones, but this one's on the house! Specialty for today is strawberry/cheesecake ice cream. Or you can have anything !"
"What do you think, Jo? I know Rose is fixing dinner, but we might not get a chance like this again." Shannon pleaded with her eyes.
"Why not," Jo replied, as she could see Shannon was really wanting some ice cream. "I think we can still eat dinner." She turned back to Tammi Sue. "I'd like some strawberry/cheesecake ice cream. That's my favorite. But just in a bowl, please."
Comin' right up, darlin'," Tammi Sue said. "And for you, sugar?" she asked Shannon .
"I'd like the same, but in a waffle cone," Shannon replied.
"Gotcha!" Tammi Sue said. "Be right back." She turned around and went behind the counter again. After Joyce's customer had left, Shannon could see their two heads together, talking, while Joyce scooped up ice cream. Jo would figure they were just getting to order together, but Shannon knew they were talking about her and Jo.
Tammi Sue brought their ice creams over, both topped with red and green sugar sprinkles in celebration of the holidays. "Here are a few Christmas cookies, too, to go along with the ice cream," she said, setting a small plate of cookies in front of them.
She sat down and began talking with Shannon, wondering why she was back in Australia , what she was doing with her life now, how she came to meet Jo, where she was staying. She was full of questions, which Shannon tried to answer as best she could. She was glad Tammie Sue never asked questions about Kim.
Joyce soon came over and joined the conversation. She told them about their business, that they were still the only ice cream place in town, and how it was such a good business to be in. They had been here for twenty years now, and were completely at ease, because most of the businesses in town were owned and operated by gays and lesbians—they fit right in.
"We found our piece of heaven here," Joyce said, taking hold of Tammi Sue's hand, "So we just decided to stay."
Shannon got up from the table when she and Jo were finished with their ice cream. She looked at her watch. "We really have to go. Some friends of ours are waiting for us down at the book shed by the lake. But it's been so nice to see you two again. And I'll probably be back by this way again soon. My employer will undoubtedly be interested in taking photographs of the town. He's already asked about it, and the lady proprietor of the B&B where we're staying told him how wonderful Daylesford is. She and her husband lived here years ago—before you two arrived on the scene."
Tammi Sue and Joyce looked at each other. Than Tammi Sue said to Shannon , "When you do come back, sweetie, stop in here at The Ice Cream Parlor , would you? We'd sure like to see you again."
"Sure," Shannon said. "You know I will. I can't forget old friends."
Tammi Sue and Joyce looked at each other again. Joyce said, "Would you mind if we snapped a picture of you—for old time's sake? We have this new digital camera we're just dying to use."
Shannon looked surprised. "No, I don't mind."
Joyce went back to the storage room and came out with the camera. "We keep it here at work in case anything interesting happens. It hasn't gotten any use yet, but we're hoping with the bunch of people that always comes here around Christmas, it'll be used a lot. Would you mind if Jo was in the picture, too? Might as well snap you both."
Shannon pulled Jo over close to her, wrapped her arm around her waist, and Joyce took their picture.
Then Tammi Sue said, "Do you have any idea when you'll be back?"
"I'm not sure. It might be a few days," Shannon said. "My employer needs to get his act together. His equipment Caravan broke down and he's back in Melbourne getting another vehicle. But I can call you on my cell phone when I get to town. What's your number here?"
Joyce jotted down their number on a scrap of paper and then Shannon gave them both a hug. "See you two later." She and Jo put on their hats. Jo added her "Bye," as Shannon took her by the arm, and they walked out to the car.
"So you knew them years ago," Jo said, rhetorically, as they got in the car. She knew now the excuse of wanting an ice cream cone was just a ruse. Why didn't Shannon just come out and say she wanted to see some old friends. And she wondered why Shannon brought her along to reconnect with them, when she could just as well have come by herself. And why would they want her in the picture with Shannon ? But she was glad she came, as the ice cream was delicious! And the cookies hit the spot, too. She wondered if she'd be able to eat dinner.
"They seem like very nice women," she said, as they drove back to the lake to pick up Carly and Paige.
"Yes. They are... very nice," Shannon replied. She was silent after that.
"Did you notice?" Joyce asked Tammie Sue after Shannon and Jo had left.
"Yes. Remarkable, isn't it?" Tammi Sue replied.
To be continued...
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