"You've never roasted marshmallows over an open fire?" Cadie asked incredulously, staring at the dark-haired figure sitting across the campfire from her. "You, my Outdoor Queen, have never stuck a marshmallow on a stick?"
"Um, no," Jo admitted with a wry smile.
"Weellllllllll, then you're in for an education," said the American as she gleefully produced a packet of the sweet treats from under her sweatshirt.
Jo watched, amused, as her partner set about the business of raising her blood sugar by several notches. When they'd changed their minds about flying out to the station, opting instead to drive from Brisbane onward, Cadie had been the first to admit that camping had never been her thing. But the thought of seeing the Australian countryside up close and personal had intrigued the American. And now she's really getting into the swing of things, Jo thought happily.
"Here you go," Cadie said, handing Jo a long, straight stick she'd cleaned of dirt and debris, and a handful of marshmallows. "Just stick it on the point and hold it close to the flames. Not right in it though, or you'll be chewing charcoal." The blonde grinned, her nose wrinkling endearingly.
That's guaranteed to turn me into ... well, a marshmallow, Jo chuckled. "Rightio then, here we go," she said, more than happy to indulge Cadie's infectious, upbeat mood. She skewered a marshmallow and reached out with the stick, watching as the sugary surface of the sweet began to bubble and caramelize.
Cadie popped a melty morsel into her mouth and rolled her eyes in exaggerated ecstasy.
"Good?" Jo asked, not really needing an answer to know her lover was in heaven.
"Mphmghmm," came the muffled reply, followed by a happy sigh. "Yours is probably about done, sweetheart."
Jo plucked the marshmallow gingerly from the end of the stick and dropped it onto her tongue. Wow, she thought. That's ... really, really ... sweet. She giggled. "I think I like it," she said around the mouthful.
"I thought you might," Cadie laughed, her eyes sparkling.
A well-timed, but purely coincidental phone call from an old friend had caused Jo to suggest a change in travel plans earlier in the week. They'd set off early on Saturday, catching a flight to Brisbane, the Queensland capital, that had seen them sitting on Rita and Brian's back patio, cold glasses of wine in hand, by mid-afternoon.
It was great to see them, Jo reflected as she stuck another marshmallow on the end of her stick and placed it in the fire again. Rita a gorgeous brunette who shared Jo's sense of humor and taste for red wine had been a Cheswick employee when Jo had joined the company over five years ago. She and Brian had more or less adopted her in those early days when she was trying find her feet and rebuild her life, and they'd done it without asking too many questions or expecting too much of her. Their offer to lend Jo and Cadie their truck, loaded up with more camping gear than they'd probably need, was typical of her friends' generosity. Good people.
After a very pleasant afternoon and evening spent in excellent company, Jo and Cadie had hit the road late on Sunday morning, driving west from Brisbane before ducking south and crossing the border into New South Wales. They'd driven most of the day, covering about 310 miles as they pushed further west till they'd come to Moree late in the day. Cadie had shared the driving with her, Jo confident in her ability to handle the unfamiliar conditions. Not to mention driving on the wrong side of the road. But she dealt with that really well, Jo thought with a smile. It had been fun to watch the American's eyes growing wider as the countryside became harsher and drier. And flatter.
They'd had an easier day today, putting another 260 miles behind them before they hit the small mining and agricultural town of Bourke, known as the Gateway to the Outback. They'd arrived by early afternoon and had done some shopping at the local RM Williams outlet.
Jo grinned at Cadie, resplendent in her new cream-colored moleskins and elastic-sided tan boots. She'd only just been persuaded to take off her Akubra stockman's hat and Driza-bone oilskin riding coat to eat dinner. Jo chuckled. It had been great fun outfitting the blonde like a fair dinkum Aussie bushman.
"What's so funny?" Cadie said, loving the twinkle she could see in Jo's eyes.
"Just enjoying watching you have fun," the dark-haired woman replied.
Shopping completed, they had wound their way through the small town till they'd reached the campground on the banks of the Darling River. After setting up the tent and getting a fire started, Jo had fashioned a tasty meal from the steaks and vegetables they'd bought earlier. It had been a very pleasant evening.
"I am having fun," Cadie declared. "This is one big country, Jo-Jo. I never really realized that before now. It's hard to believe that there can be the islands and the reef and all that and just a couple of days' drive away it's like this." She swept her arm around, taking in the flat, dry landscape beyond the ring of their campfire's light.
"Yeah, it's big," Jo agreed. "But this is where it really starts to get different. There's an Aussie saying going out the back of Bourke it means going out where there's nothing and nobody." She popped another marshmallow into her mouth.
"So we're really on the edge of the desert here?" Cadie asked.
Jo waggled a hand at her.
"Not desert in the sense of dunes and oases, and camels and all that," she replied after she finished her mouthful. "But in terms of arable land stuff that can actually be farmed in some way we're heading into country that's as hard as it gets. There's nothing too glamorous about working the land out here," she said wryly.
"So I shouldn't expect much in the way of green grass and contented cows then," Cadie said, thinking of the rich dairy farms of her home state of Wisconsin.
"Er, no," Jo confirmed, smiling across the fire at her. "From what Mum was saying on the phone, they're in the middle of a drought too, so things are tougher than normal." It occurred to her that Cadie deserved a bit of a warning. "Um, sweetheart?" A blonde eyebrow lifted, waiting. "Things can get a bit harsh out here," Jo continued, hesitantly. "Especially in a drought. Animals die, and sometimes the farmers are the ones that have to do the killing." She looked steadily at Cadie, not wanting to sugarcoat reality.
Cadie nodded, swallowing slightly.
"Okay," she said carefully. "I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I understand it's part of the way things are out here."
"Well, I'm not sure either," Jo agreed. "It's been a very, very long time since I was here. I hope I'm exaggerating how bad it could be." She sighed and mustered a smile for her partner. "Whatever happens, it's going to be different, and there's always an element of fun in that, right?"
Cadie stood and moved around to Jo's side of the fire, dropping down and winding her arm through her lover's.
"I'm having a ball, honey," she reassured. "And whatever happens, happens. As long as we're together, I'm happy."
Jo leaned in and kissed her forehead softly.
"Ditto," she replied. "Here, have a marshmallow." She dropped a sticky finger-full on to Cadie's bottom lip, watching as the blonde opened and drew the morsel into her mouth.
"Mmmmmm, thank you," Cadie mumbled. "Tastes almost as good as you."
"Yeah, and you love it."
"Yes, I do."
Jo came awake slowly, the unfamiliar sounds of their surroundings prodding her up from a rather pleasant dream involving chocolate-covered strawberries and a certain blonde American. Pale blue eyes blinked in the grey pre-dawn light as she slowly adjusted. Tucked under her chin was a warm, limpet-like figure. Jo smiled into the lightening dark, charmed by the small sounds of protestation Cadie made when she half-sensed Jo's wakefulness. The taller woman wondered briefly what it was that had woken her when the magpie took up its morning song again, warbling high above the tent.
It was colder than Jo had expected and she sent out a silent thank you to Rita and Brian, who had insisted she and Cadie borrow their alpine-rated double sleeping bag as well.
Cadie snuggled closer and Jo took a few minutes to just revel in the sleepy sense of contentment she felt whenever the younger woman was close by. She cast her mind back to her previous lovers, and wondered at herself.
I always hated actually sleeping with other people, she remembered. That skin on skin thing, all night long, just drove me nuts. She glanced down at the blonde head whose warm breath was tickling the skin of her throat. So what is it about this that I just can't get enough? Jo sighed happily. Well, love, obviously, she answered herself. But I've seen plenty of people in love who don't do this night after night. Unconscious fingertips began a gentle movement across her ribs and Jo smiled into the gloom.
"Mmmmmm," came the drowsy greeting as Cadie drifted.
"Good morning sleepyhead," Jo said quietly, squeezing the blonde gently. "How do you feel about breakfast?"
"Mmmmmm, orgasmic," Cadie muttered. "Want me to call room service?"
Jo chuckled. As much fun as Cadie was having discovering the joys of camping, she was missing her creature comforts just a little.
"No room service darl, but I can promise you hot food and a cup of tea. How does that sound?"
Cadie whimpered as she clutched at Jo's t-shirt.
"Zat mean I have to let you go?"
"Mhmmmm. But the good news is, you get to stay snuggled in here till it's ready. How about that?"
Green eyes flickered open for the first time and they looked at her with pathetic gratitude.
"I adore you."
A low, rumbling laugh was her answer. Carefully Jo extracted herself from Cadie's grasp, unzipping the front of the sleeping bag and crawling out before the blonde gathered the warm material around herself again. The tent was a standard two-person model, wide enough only for the double air mattress and not much in the way of head room. Even sitting on the ground sheet to pull on her sweatpants, the top of Jo's dark head brushed against the roof. A thick pair of socks was next before the skipper pulled a sweatshirt on over her t-shirt and slid her feet into her unlaced hiking boots. A quick search in her overnight bag revealed a towel, soap, shampoo and toothbrush. Jo unzipped the tent's fly screen and pushed aside the flaps before crawling out into the cool morning air.
Mmmmmm, lovely morning, she reflected as she walked to the ablutions block. The campground was pretty much deserted and she had the spartan concrete building to herself. Always a bonus when it comes to public bathrooms, she mused. She stepped into one of the shower cubicles and turned on the hot water, letting the steam warm her as she stripped off. She tempered it with some cold just as she stepped under the high-pressure jet.
It was the smell of gently frying bacon that finally drew Cadie out of the warm nest of the sleeping bag.
How do vegetarians resist that? Cadie sat up and blinked at her surroundings. It was still quite cool and she grabbed the sweatshirt Jo had discarded after her shower, pulling it over her head. It smelled wonderfully of her partner's unique scent, combined with clean cotton and soap. Yum.
Cadie finished dressing, grabbed her toiletries bag and towel and crawled outside the tent. The view brought her up short.
"Ohhh," she gasped. They were camped on a gentle curve of the Darling River. The early morning mist still hung over the grey-green water and a flock of large white birds swooped lazily over the river's course, the air crisp and clean. On the opposite bank tall, ghostly gum trees emerged from the light fog but there wasn't a breath of wind to disturb their olive-green leaves. It was a tableau out of a watercolor painting. "Gosh, Jo, this is gorgeous," she breathed.
Jo looked up from where she was crouched in front of the small fire, looking around at what had the blonde so entranced.
"Yep it sure is," she murmured. "Did you sleep okay?" She turned back to the fire and poked at the sausages and bacon sizzling away in the frying pan she had balanced on the coals.
Cadie tore her eyes from the landscape and looked at her lover. Jo's dark hair draped over her shoulders as she leaned over the cooking food. Cadie watched as a long-fingered hand absently pushed an errant lock back behind her ear. The t-shirt showed off Jo's finely-muscled arms to good effect and the sweatpants were stretched over firm thighs as she settled on her haunches. Cadie sighed happily.
It's 6am, I'm not awake yet and I have crusty crud in the corners of my eyes, but looking at her still makes me twittery. An inquiring brow quirked in her direction as Jo's question went unanswered. Wakie, wakie Arcadia.
"Uh, sorry. Did you ask me something?" She shrugged. "You distracted me."
Jo snorted but smiled up at her lover.
"I asked if you slept okay."
Cadie walked over and sat on the large log that lay on the ground on one side of the fireplace.
"Actually I did, thanks," she answered. Green eyes met blue across the column of smoke. "As long as I have you for a pillow, darling, I'm pretty sure I could sleep anywhere." Interesting how even something as simple as that can make her blush, Cadie thought as she watched the tinge of color touch Jo's cheeks.
"Well, that's good to know," her lover answered huskily.
"Have I got time for a shower?"
"Yep. I'll have this lot." Jo indicated the bacon and eggs that were just about done to perfection. "And I'll have yours hot and ready for you when you get back."
"I like this kind of room service," she said cheekily as she swung her legs over the log and headed for the ablutions block.
Jo tilted her head and watched as the blonde sauntered off.
"Damn, I love watching you leave," she called out, provoking a laugh and a jaunty addition to Cadie's natural gait. Jo groaned. "Tease," she muttered, happily tipping her breakfast onto a waiting plate.
"Show me again where we are and where we're going?" Cadie said an hour later. She had finished washing the breakfast dishes while Jo packed up the tent and sleeping bag, loading the equipment into the back of the truck.
"Sure." Jo pulled out the map from a pocket on the spare wheel cover and spread it out on the picnic table next to their campsite. She pinned down the edges with a ketchup bottle and her Swiss Army knife. Cadie came up beside her, tucking herself under Jo's left arm. "Okay, we're here." Jo jabbed a finger on Bourke. "See this triangle?" A long finger traced the blue spidery line of the Darling River, southwest to Wilcannia, then east to Cobar and north again to Bourke.
"Yep," Cadie replied.
"Well, Coonyabby is just about in the middle of it," Jo said. She pointed at a bare patch in the center of the triangle.
Cadie leaned forward and looked more carefully at the map.
"Um, sweetheart? There are no roads leading to the station."
Jo chuckled. "None marked on the map that's for sure," she agreed. "No more bitumen for us, kiddo."
Cadie blinked at her quizzically. "Bitumen?"
"Um ..." Jo searched her limited lexicon of American phrases for the appropriate equivalent. "Asphalt?"
"Ah, thank you." Cadie nodded.
Jo pointed at the faint unfilled-in lines following the course of the Darling.
"That's an unsealed road from Bourke to Wilcannia," she explained. "But we're gonna stop at Louth." She flicked a fingertip at the tiny town about 60 miles southwest of where they were. "We turn left and there's another unsealed road that runs to Cobar. But we're only going about halfway along it. Hopefully we should find Mum and Dad's mailbox somewhere along there. They've got a dirt track running from the road to the homestead."
Cadie stepped back and put her hands on her hips.
"The words 'somewhere' and 'hopefully' are not generating a lot of confidence in me, Miss Madison," she mock scolded, provoking a laugh from her partner, who started refolding the map.
"Well, it's been a while since I had to find the place, Miss Jones. And we've got my cell phone so we'll be fine." She tossed the map in the blonde's direction, chuckling as Cadie juggled it before dropping it back in its pocket. "If we have trouble finding the track to the homestead, I'll call Mum and she'll come and get us." A small flicker of something crossed Jo's face, catching Cadie's eye.
She's nervous, the blonde realized.
"I'm looking forward to meeting her, Jo-Jo," she said carefully.
"So am I," Jo replied dryly.
"Is that how it feels?" Cadie asked. "Like you're meeting her for the first time?"
Jo sat down on the picnic table, her feet resting on the bench. She fiddled with her Swiss Army knife, opening and closing each tool as she thought about her reply. The silence was just long enough to make Cadie believe she wasn't going to answer, when Jo cleared her throat.
"Kind of, I guess," she murmured, not meeting her partner's eyes. "To be honest, I'm more worried about Dad than Mum."
Cadie watched as the emotions passed across Jo's face, tugging at the corners of her mouth and eyes. She walked over and stood in front of Jo, resting her hands on the taller woman's denim-clad knees. She didn't say anything, but just offered comfort through the small strokes of her fingers as Jo continued to wrestle with her thoughts.
"I feel really guilty, Cadie," she eventually said, so quietly that the blonde almost didn't catch what she was saying.
"For leaving the way you did?" Cadie asked.
Jo nodded. "Yes, but not just for that," she replied hoarsely. Now she lifted her eyes and met Cadie's. "The farm's been in the family for 130 years. Passed down from father to child. Dad wants so much to be able to continue that tradition. Or at least," she corrected herself. "That's what he wanted when I was a teenager. He was always trying to teach me everything he could about running the place. But that wasn't what I wanted."
Cadie reached out and cupped her lover's cheek with a gentle palm.
"You were just a kid, Jo-Jo," she said. "You couldn't be expected to know what you wanted at that age that was a lot of pressure to put you under."
Jo leaned into the touch for a moment, closing her eyes and savoring the contact. When she opened them again Cadie saw the baby blues were awash with tears.
"But that hasn't changed," Jo whispered. "I still don't want to run the farm. Which means when Dad stops being able to run the place, that'll be the end of the tradition. They'll have to sell up. All that blood, sweat and toil for nothing." Her voice cracked on the last word and Cadie stepped forward, wrapping the tall, dark streak of misery up in a hug.
"Jo-Jo, sweetheart," she soothed, rocking them both gently back and forth. "I think you're beating yourself up a little prematurely." Jo's arms tightened around her waist. "Who knows what either one of them is thinking? When was the last time you had a significant conversation with your father?"
Jo said nothing but shook her head against Cadie's shoulder and sniffled. Cadie decided that meant it had been a very long time.
"Okay then," she said. "So basically, we have no idea what they're thinking is on the subject. So maybe they'll surprise us." She remembered her first phone call with Maggie Madison. "Again."
Jo pulled back enough to be able to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand.
"It's not just that, though," she muttered. "There's the whole ..." she indicated the two of them. "Us thing." She looked up quizzically at the blonde. "Why aren't you more nervous about meeting them?"
Cadie smiled softly at her older, but in this sense, infinitely less experienced, lover.
"Probably because I've done it before," she answered calmly. "Once you've met Naomi's parents, trust me, you can survive anything." She grinned wryly at Jo, relieved to see a spark of humor return to the dark-haired woman's face.
Cadie rolled her eyes.
"Oh my god. You have no idea. If you'd ever met her mother you would know exactly where Naomi got that mean streak."
Jo chuckled, somehow vaguely satisfied to know that no matter how bad she thought her relationship with her parents might be, somewhere Naomi was having it tougher.
"Besides," Cadie continued. "I've yet to see anything in you that would suggest your parents are anything but good people."
A flash of confusion caused Jo's eyes to narrow.
"How can you say that, knowing my history like you do?" she asked incredulously.
Cadie leaned forward slightly and brushed her lips across her lover's. "Sweetheart, there's a dark streak in you, no question." She put a finger against the soft lips just inches from her own, as Jo started to speak. "But you have it so tightly under control, you're so wary of it, that I end up feeling totally protected by it." She smiled at the look of wonder on Jo's face. "You don't believe that, do you?"
Jo shook her head silently.
Cadie thought about how to explain herself a little better. "The only time I've ever seen your dark side has been when you've been defending me, or someone else you care about." She looked at Jo adoringly. "Do you have any idea how safe that makes me feel?" The dark head shook again.
"When you were living that life in Sydney, did you feel like you had any choice about what you were doing?" Cadie asked gently.
Jo bowed her head again, and Cadie could almost feel the shame radiating out from the older woman.
"I killed people, Arcadia. It shouldn't have mattered how I felt about my circumstances. I should have made the choice not to do something like that." Why are we having this discussion now? Here, in the middle of nowhere. Jo felt a wave of self-hatred wash through her.
Gentle fingers gripped her chin, forcing her to look into fierce green eyes at close proximity.
"It's done, Jo. You did the right thing in the end, and you've been working your ass off to do the right thing ever since, including what you did to save Josh just a couple of months ago. Maybe it's time to start forgiving yourself."
Blue eyes blinked at her helplessly.
"I can't Cadie. There isn't anything I can do to make up for taking those lives. Maybe that's what's scaring me the most about seeing Mum and Dad again," Jo said huskily. "Maybe it's their forgiveness I need." She swallowed hard. "And I'm not sure they'll be able to give me that, once they know the truth."
Oh my love, Cadie thought. She pulled Jo close again wanting nothing more than to ease her lover's anxiety. "I understand," she whispered close to Jo's ear. "You really feel like you have to tell them everything?"
Jo sighed against her neck, the warm breath soft on her skin.
"I don't see any way it can be avoided, do you?" Jo murmured. "Fifteen years have gone by since they last saw me. They're bound to be curious, and I don't want to lie. I shouldn't lie to them, should I?"
Cadie rested her chin on top of the dark head as she gazed out over the river. "Maybe you won't have to tell them the details," she said gently. "Just saying you made mistakes and you want to put them behind you might be enough."
"Do ... do you forgive me?"
It was like someone slid a long, thin dagger of ache into her heart, hearing the level of hurt in her lover's question. Cadie placed a kiss into the soft, black hair.
"From the second I saw you I didn't give a damn what you'd done before, Jo-Jo." She cast her mind back to their early conversations on the Seawolf the reluctance of the tall skipper to reveal anything of her mysterious past. "I never saw you as anything other than what you are. A good person. So yes, I forgave you. Long ago."
Jo held on to her even tighter and Cadie realized that the adult in her arms was feeling very much like a child at the moment. She couldn't help smiling at the concept and was unsurprised by the sudden sense of protectiveness she felt.
"Whatever happens, Jo-Jo, we'll get through it together, I promise," she said. "Whatever you want to do, or tell them, I'll back you up."
Jo pulled back again, managing to find a smile from somewhere.
"Have I mentioned today that I love you?" she asked.
"Nope," Cadie replied, using the bottom of her shirt to wipe the tears from Jo's cheeks.
"Well, I do."
The blonde kissed her again, this time applying the full force of her feelings for the skipper as she sought to soothe away the rough edges. Jo responded in kind, drawing Cadie closer. Their tongues met in a tender, but intense exploration that made them both forget just where they were.
But not for long.
"Well, well, well and just what do we have here?"
Cadie stepped back from Jo's embrace with a startled gasp. The man had come from nowhere, it seemed, stepping out from behind the truck. He was short and stocky with a beer gut that hung over the grimy pair of work shorts he wore. His blue singlet was sweat-stained. Jo recognized him as the truck driver who had parked his rig further down the river late the night before.
"Don't let me stop you ladies," he said with a gap-toothed grin. He sauntered closer and sat down on the end of the log near their fireplace. "There's nothing revs my engine more than the sight of two good-looking sheilas going at it." He reached down and adjusted himself lewdly. "Tell you what, how about fifty bucks for you continue the show?"
Cadie moved a little closer to Jo, who stood slightly in front of her, putting herself between the blonde and the bastard.
"Shit, Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," the American muttered under her breath, just loud enough for Jo to hear. The tall woman snorted quietly.
"Why don't you just get lost, mate," Jo said in the direction of the truckie.
"Now, now, gorgeous, no need to be like that," he chastised her. "You two looked like you were enjoying yourselves. Don't be selfish about it. Share it around a little." He leered at them and Cadie felt a jolt of nausea as his eyes raked up and down her body. "Play your cards right, girls, and you could get yourselves some cash and a taste of the best dick in the central west." He stood up and sauntered closer, one hand still gripping his crotch.
"Cadie," Jo growled, her voice low and dangerous.
"Get in the truck."
Cadie felt, rather than saw, Jo's fingers manipulating the Swiss Army knife, flicking its longest blade out.
"I'm not leaving you out here alone," she muttered.
Jo thought about arguing, but the implacable presence at her back didn't waver and instead she just accepted the fact that from now on she had a sidekick. Somehow the concept made her smile, and she closed the knife and slid it back into her pocket.
I don't need a knife to deal with this moron, she told herself.
"Back off, mate," she warned the man.
"Or what?" He was close enough that Jo could see the sweat-matted black hair on his shoulders. Worse, she could smell him, and he was no bed of roses.
"Look, you're barking up the wrong tree, all right?" Why am I even trying to reason with this guy? He's got the IQ of a cowpat and the stench to match. "If you were the last dick on the planet neither of us would be interested, so why not just be on your way and we'll be on ours." She felt Cadie's hand on the small of her back and together they turned to walk away from the man.
But ego or rank stupidity nudged the idiot on. He reached out and grabbed Jo's left elbow, yanking her back around to face him.
Oh, you shouldn't have done that, buddy, Cadie thought, resigning herself to a non-diplomatic solution. She felt the heightened tension in Jo's body under her hand, a faint vibration that thrummed. The blonde almost thought she could hear it.
"Where d'ya think you're going?" Mr Smelly said.
Jo went very still, her eyes narrowing to ice-blue slivers. She felt the darkness inside slither up from the depths of her personality, and for once, she let it.
"Let go of me." Her voice was almost a purr now, deep and threatening.
Mr Smelly, oblivious to all but his twitching testosterone levels, persisted.
"All right, look, 75 bucks each. You won't regret it." He yanked on Jo's arm one more time.
I've had enough of this, Jo decided. She clenched her right fist and snapped her arm through in a short-arm jab that was so blindingly fast Mr Smelly never saw it coming. He certainly felt it though as the jolt rocked him backwards, his nose splattering with a squelching sound the tall woman found deeply satisfying. He was on his backside in the dust before Jo had uncurled her fingers.
"You fucking dyke bitch!!" he yelped, both hands reaching for his blood-spattered face. "You'll fucking pay for that!"
Jo dipped a hand in her pocket and came up with a half-dollar piece, which she flipped with her thumb in the direction of the man writhing in the dirt. It hit him on the forehead.
"There's 50 cents, mate. Give someone a call who gives a rat's arse." She turned to Cadie, who was standing calmly behind her, just the tiniest smile on her face. "Let's get out of here," Jo muttered, shaking out her smarting hand.
"Right behind you," Cadie replied quietly. Jo stalked off to pick up the last of their gear. Cadie tucked her hands in her back pockets and stood watching Mr Smelly, her head cocked to one side. He looks like a bug trying to get back on its legs after its been tipped over, she thought dispassionately. She sniffed. A stink bug.
The man scrambled on to his hands and knees, blood dripping onto the dirt from his shattered nose. Cadie turned back to the picnic table, scooped up her Akubra and jammed it on her head.
"You haven't seen the last of me, bitch!" Mr Smelly whimpered. Cadie stopped in her tracks. In two strides she was standing next to him.
"You're the one who hassled us, mister. Not the other way around," she said pleasantly. She lifted her left boot and placed it on the point of his shoulder. With one gentle nudge he fell over again, sprawling in the dust.
"Cades!" Jo shouted, opening the driver's side door. "Let's go!"
Cadie gave the injured man one last glance and then she moved away again. She clambered into the front passenger seat of the truck as Jo started the engine and dropped it into first gear. They pulled out of the campsite as Mr Smelly managed to push himself to his feet. He picked up a nearby rock and pinged it at the retreating vehicle, bouncing it off the roof.
The rock made a sharp metallic sound as it ricocheted off the truck and both women rolled their eyes. Cadie leaned against the door, resting her arm along the back of the bench seat as she watched her partner. Jo concentrated on getting them out onto the main road through Bourke, looking left and right.
"See what I mean?" Cadie said.
"Huh?" Jo let the cattle truck pass before turning right onto the road to Louth and Wilcannia.
"Protected," Cadie explained, waiting for blue eyes to turn to her before beaming at her partner.
"You could have handled him perfectly well without me, sweetheart," she countered. "I just happened to be closest to him."
Cadie raised an eyebrow. "Not to start with Jo-Jo. You moved between us." She smiled at the blush that rose on Jo's angular cheeks. "Face it. You're naturally heroic."
"Awww quit it, will ya?" Jo squirmed in her seat.
The blonde chuckled but decided to take pity on her self-conscious friend.
"Think he'll come after us?" she asked, looking around at the stores and pubs they were passing on the outskirts of town.
"Who knows. Depends if he's going our way, I guess." She glanced at Cadie who was absorbed in taking in her unfamiliar surroundings. "By the way, there's something else Brian lent us for the trip." Cadie turned to look at her. "There's a metal box just behind our seats here." She reached back and tapped the box in question.
"Do I want to know what's in there?" Cadie asked as she shifted round to take a look.
"It's his two hunting rifles and some ammo," Jo said quietly, catching the blonde's eye and shrugging. "I know. But I wasn't going to argue with him, and I guess they're insurance."
"Don't you need a license to have a gun here?"
"Yep. But I don't plan on either using 'em or advertising the fact that we've got 'em." They caught up to the cattle truck and Jo hung back, trying to avoid the cloud of dust that trailed behind the huge vehicle. "Do you know how to use one?"
Cadie took off her hat and ran a hand through her hair.
"My dad does a lot of hunting," she said. "Because there were guns in the house he made sure we knew how to use them properly, how to load them and handle them safely. But I've never fired one."
They left the last of Bourke behind them and Cadie glanced around at the landscape. It was breathtaking and not anything she had ever experienced before. The unsealed road stretched straight in front of them away to a shimmering horizon. Yellows and reds dominated, even the olive-green of the low scrubby bushes giving way to the ever-present dust. The sky was the most brilliant shade of blue Cadie had ever seen, rivaling even the tint of her favorite pair of eyes.
"Wow, Jo, this is amazing," she murmured. "Just beautiful."
Jo blinked. Even though it had been 15 years since she'd walked away from this kind of countryside, it was starkly familiar to her. She'd always thought of her home territory as nothing but flat, boring, harsh land. Seeing it through Cadie's eyes was proving to be illuminating.
"I guess it is," she replied. "It's looking way drier than usual though." She frowned. "Guess mum wasn't kidding about the drought."
Thankfully, the cattle truck had taken another route once they'd left Bourke and Jo kicked the truck into top gear. Even though the road was essentially a well-made dirt track, the going was smooth. If there had been any significant recent rainfall it would have been a mess of ruts and rough edges, but the dry weather had compacted the surface into dusty concrete. The road was wide enough for two lanes, but only just.
"How long till we get to Louth?" Cadie asked.
"Just over an hour, probably," Jo answered. "Goddess willing and the creeks don't rise." She smiled at her partner.
"Not much chance of that," Cadie said, looking up at the cloudless sky.
"Jo! Pull over! Please?"
The dark-haired woman chuckled at the delighted note in her partner's voice. Carefully she applied the brake and pulled the big four-wheel drive over onto the soft edge of the track. They came to a halt in a cloud of red dust. Cadie's eye had been caught by a flock of emus that had been running alongside them for half a mile or so, giving Jo a nervous breakdown hoping they wouldn't try to cross the road. Instead they'd slowed and Jo was totally unsurprised at the American's request to stop with them.
They were just north of Louth, the small cluster of buildings laughingly called a town where they would turn off to head for Coonyabby.
"I need to get my camera out," Cadie said excitedly. "I guess it's buried in my bag somewhere, huh?" She looked over her shoulder at the bags and camping equipment piled high in the back of the truck.
"Yeah," Jo said. "But dig it out. It doesn't look like these guys are going anywhere in a hurry."
They both climbed out, Cadie rushing to the back of the truck and opening the tailgate. She clambered up and ducked under the roof line, disappearing amongst the bags and boxes. Jo wandered around to the passenger side, watching the large birds milling around. She leaned back against the vehicle, one leg bent, the foot against the tire, her hands jammed in her pockets.
The emus were on the other side of a light wire fence that ran along the road, marking the boundary of someone's property. Jo dug back into her memory, trying to remember the geography of the area and who lived where.
"This might even be the edge of Phil's parents' place," she muttered, remembering riding the boundaries on horseback with her childhood friend. "Then again I might be wrong." All the properties around here looked pretty much like the others, after all. It bothered her a little that she couldn't remember exactly.
"Did you say something, sweetheart?" Cadie was still scrabbling around deep in the inner recesses of their luggage.
"Nah," Jo said, lifting her voice a little. "I was just talking to these silly birds out here." She chuckled at the emus. The biggest of them probably topped her six-foot frame by a good half a foot or so, but what they gained in height, the big flightless dumb idiots lacked in brain. Emus were known to try and run through an obstacle rather than figure out a way to walk around. "Not more than one brain cell between the whole flock," Jo murmured. "Having any luck back there?"
"No, damn it." Jo grinned at the sounds of frustrated American. "Maybe I put it in your bag?" Renewed activity ensued and Jo laughed at the whirlwind of destruction that was her determined partner.
Her giggles trailed away as she caught sight of a trail of dust approaching from the north. They hadn't seen another vehicle in either direction since they'd left Bourke and Jo suddenly had a bad feeling she wasn't going to be too happy to see this one. She walked slowly to the rear of the truck, unconsciously putting herself between Cadie, who was still rooting around in the gear, and whatever was coming. The dust cloud drew closer and now she could hear the rumble of the big semi-trailer as it bore down on them.
"Great. Just great," Jo grumbled, recognizing the rig as belonging to Mr Smelly. "This guy's too dumb to know when he's had his arse kicked." She glanced over her shoulder quickly, making sure Cadie was still buried in the back of the truck. "Cadie?"
"Stay where you are, okay?"
"Just stay where you are."
Cadie heard the tone in her lover's voice and didn't argue, though she did squirm around so she could see what was going on. Jo was between her and the approaching rig but she didn't need more than a glance to fathom what was happening.
"Wonderful," she griped. She tucked herself back out of sight.
Jo stood casually in the blazing sun. She assumed her best bad-ass attitude and placed her hands on her denim-clad hips. The battered black Akubra sat low over her eyes and the sleeveless checked work-shirt showed off her tan and her lithe, muscled arms.
"You are such a poser, Madison," she muttered to herself. She grinned anyway, allowing herself feel the rush of knowing just how intimidating she looked. It felt good. Very, very good.
The rig eased to a halt, the dust settling around it as air brakes squealed and hissed. Jo held herself still, waiting to see what the congenital idiot behind the wheel would do next. She didn't have to wait long. Mr Smelly opened his door and jumped down to the ground. He'd come prepared, hefting a large crowbar in his right hand. He walked towards Jo, slapping the end of the iron bar into his left hand rhythmically. The damage Jo had already inflicted on him was painfully obvious. There were bloodstains on his grubby singlet and his broken nose was bent between two rapidly blackening eyes.
"Fancy meeting you here," Jo said, keeping any hint of interest out of her voice.
"Shut up, bitch." Mr Smelly stopped about 15 feet away from her.
She let a slow, dangerous, sexy smile touch her lips. "Nice. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"
The hairy freak took a step forward, brandishing the crowbar like it was a baseball bat.
"Is that a crack about my mother?"
Jo rolled her eyes and sighed.
"My god, you really are from the shallow end of the gene pool, aren't you, mate?"
"Get lost, ya buffoon."
Enraged, the still-bloody man charged her, lifting the crowbar above his head and letting out a wild yell. Unfortunately he hadn't allowed for Jo's greater height, not to mention the gulf between their IQs, mobility and strength. The tall woman saw the telegraphed blow before it was little more than a spark between the man's ears. She blocked the blow with one simple movement, grabbing the crowbar as it swung towards her shoulder. Then she shoved back, catching the man in the midriff with his end of the iron rod, knocking him on his backside for the second time that morning.
"You take a long time to learn a lesson, don't you?" Jo pointed out. Her hand was stinging from the crowbar, but there was no way she was going to let him know that. Mr Smelly scrambled to his feet, still grasping the makeshift weapon. "Isn't getting beaten up by a woman once a day enough for you?" She knew she wasn't doing much to placate the big bag of shit, but she was taking a kind of perverse pleasure in watching the man make a complete fool of himself, over and over. She grinned again.
Once more he came at her, this time swinging the crowbar from side to side. But before Jo could do anything about it, she heard the unmistakable sound of the bolt action on a hunting rifle behind her right shoulder.
Oh boy, Jo thought. I wonder if she's loaded it.
Mr Smelly stopped in his tracks, his bloodshot eyes widening at the sight of the diminutive blonde standing on the tailgate of the truck, a large Winchester tucked up against her right shoulder. Its muzzle looked big and black and menacing to him.
"Why don't you just take your ugly, fat butt back to your rig, mister, and be on your way?" Jo had to smile. Somehow the words and Cadie's cultured Midwest accent just didn't go together.
"You bitches are insane!" the man yelled. "You can't just pull a gun on a bloke."
"This from the imbecile who just tried to take my head off with a crowbar," Jo answered, one eyebrow raised as she folded her arms casually across her chest.
He stepped forward again. This time Cadie shifted her aim and fired, the bullet kicking up the dust a foot to the right of the man's feet. She winced at the thump of the recoil, surprised by its force. Not gonna let him know that, she decided, resetting her feet determinedly.
Guess she loaded it, Jo thought, impressed by her partner's accuracy. Not bad for someone who's never fired a gun before. She didn't flinch or move a muscle. God knows what she'll hit next time, she chuckled internally.
Mr Smelly was dancing around like some kind of enraged lunatic.
"You bitches! You goddamn, motherfucking, dyke bitches! Who do you think you are?"
"We're the motherfucking dyke bitches kicking your ass for the second time today," Cadie called out. Jo still hadn't turned to look at her lover, but she knew the rifle was still trained on the man. "Go on. Get out of here, before your luck with my aim runs out."
"Did I mention that she's actually the one with the hair-trigger temper?" Jo said cheerfully, leaning forward slightly and hitching a thumb in her partner's direction.
Finally, the message seemed to get through. Mr Smelly dropped the crowbar and backed up towards his rig, his hands raised above his head. He stumbled when he ran into the massive bull-bar in front of the radiator grill, but then he sidled to the driver's side door before clambering up. Cadie kept the gun on him the whole way, even as he fired up the big semi-trailer, pulled out onto the road and passed them, heading south.
Jo swiveled on her heel to watch him leave then completed the turn, gazing up at her partner. Damn if that's not the sexiest thing I've seen in ... well since the last time she looked sexy. Jo grinned up at the blonde, who finally lowered her guard, shouldering the heavy rifle.
"Think you've found your calling, Thelma?" Jo said in her best imitation southern US accent.
Cadie picked up the cue, green eyes sparkling.
"Maybe, Louise, maybe. The call of the wild." She beamed down at the dark-haired woman. "Y'know, I know it's crazy, but I just feel like I've got a knack for this shit." Cadie jumped down and sauntered over to her lover.
"I believe you do," Jo murmured. She slid a hand into Cadie's silky fair hair and around to the back of her neck, pulling her closer. Jo ducked her head and brushed her lips against Cadie's. The blonde lowered the rifle, keeping it well clear of their bodies as she melted against Jo's tall frame. The long fingers in her hair set her scalp tingling and Jo's strong arm around her waist made her feel safe and supported. The kiss deepened, their tongues exploring and teasing as the women gave in to the knee-weakening passion that welled up in them. Jo broke off first, humming her pleasure on a ragged exhale of air. "Mmmmmm."
Cadie looked up into the desire-darkened blue eyes and smiled dreamily. "They didn't do that in the movie."
Jo kissed the corner of her mouth lightly, tempting her with just the tip of her tongue. "They should have," the dark woman purred.
"No argument from me, gorgeous."
They lost themselves for a few more seconds, drinking in each other's warmth.
"Um, Jo-Jo?" She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
"Mmmmmm?" Please don't let this be a dream.
"I have a loaded, deadly weapon in my hand and it's ..."
"Making you uncomfortable? Scaring you?"
"Getting heavy." Cadie grinned.
A fine, dark brow lifted.
"Well, I think I can do something about that," Jo drawled. She placed a hand on the rifle's stock and took it out of Cadie's grip. Quickly she unloaded it, her expert handling of the piece not lost on the blonde.
"You've done that before," she stated, looking up into hooded eyes.
"Many times," Jo said bluntly. She flashed Cadie a quick smile. "But not where you think. Out here, guns are just part of life on the farm. I was shooting cans off the old stump in the back garden when I was 4." She took a long look at the Winchester. "This one's a bit flashier than the ones I shot back then, though." Carefully she placed it on the truck's tailgate. "I'm afraid you scared off the emus."
Cadie looked around, disappointed to find no trace of the flock.
"Damn," she said. "Guess they recognized a lucky shot when they saw one, huh?"
"I guess so." She vaulted up onto the tailgate and replaced the rifle and bullets in their metal box. "Come on, Calamity, let's hit the road." She extracted herself and jumped down into the dust.
"What's your hurry, Louise?" Cadie teased, reverting to her best Oklahoma accent.
"No hurry," Jo answered. "I just want to put distance between us and the scene of our last GODDAMNED CRIME!!"
"So, can I expect that kind of behavior from all the males of the species out here?" Cadie asked once they were settled back into the drive and their adrenalin levels had flattened out.
Jo clasped her hands on top of the steering wheel, the big truck not needing much help to stay on the straight and narrow track. She considered her reply.
"Well," she answered. "On the one hand, I think our friend there was from the lower end of the evolutionary ladder." Cadie snorted her agreement. "On the other hand we are smack bang in the middle of Ocker Central."
Cadie turned to look at her. "Ocker?"
"Uh, yeah. Um, ocker is Australian for redneck," Jo replied.
"Ahhh. No more public make out sessions, huh?" The blonde grinned at her lover who flashed her a smile.
"The good news is we're not exactly going to be out in public from now on, sweetheart," Jo said. "We're gonna be on 60,000 acres of private land in a couple of hours."
"Cool. What's the bad news?"
Jo smiled, a little grimly.
"The bad news is I have no idea how my parents, and whoever else is working on Coonyabby these days, are going to react. For all I know we're walking into a den of homophobes."
"Hmmmmm." Cadie glanced around at the passing landscape. "And I guess I can't pull a gun on your parents, huh?"
Jo laughed, letting her partner's lighthearted response ease some of the tension that was balling up in her guts.
"No, hon, somehow I don't think that would go down well. Hell, I don't even know if we're gonna get to sleep in the same bed."
Cadie swung her head around quickly. "Jo, I'm not sleeping away from you. They'll just have to get over it."
Jo raised her hand in a placating gesture.
"I know, I know. And I'm not going to let them pull any 'while you're sleeping under our roof you'll live by our rules' bullshit. We've got the camping gear. If they can't deal with us sleeping together then we'll go camp under the stars." Apprehension welled up again and she tempered it with a little anger. "Screw 'em."
A gentle hand came to rest on her thigh and she felt the reassuring squeeze.
"Easy, skipper," Cadie soothed. "You know your mother better than I do ..."
"Not much," Jo murmured. Another squeeze.
"You know what I mean. Anyway, all I meant was that in the brief conversations I've had with her, she hasn't struck me as the type to get uptight about that." She thought about it a little more. "Of course, she might think twice when she hears us in the middle of the night."
Jo's head whipped round and shocked blue eyes widened. Cadie was alarmed to see the color draining out of her lover's face even as she gripped the steering wheel tighter.
"Honey, I was kidding. Relax." Jo didn't say anything, just gazed ahead up the long, straight road. Oh boy. Cadie unclipped her seatbelt and sidled across the bench seat until she was up against Jo's side. She could feel the tension thrumming through Jo's body. "Sweetheart, it's okay."
"I-I never even thought about that," Jo whispered, trying to concentrate on driving even as her brain was flying in a million different directions. "Cadie, I don't think I can ... I mean, not with them ..." She shuddered involuntarily.
Cadie smiled. There were parts of her more than capable lover that were still so adolescent it was like watching a kid grow up before her very eyes. She patted Jo's belly.
"Pull over, love, before you drive us into the desert," she said calmly.
Jo sighed and did as the blonde requested, bringing them to a halt in a convenient byway. Cadie let them sit for a minute or so until she saw the panic start to abate in Jo's eyes.
"Sorry, I had a bit of a moment there," Jo muttered.
Cadie kissed her on the cheek softly.
"It's okay. You're running headfirst into a bunch of issues you've never had to think about before, huh?"
Jo rested her arm across Cadie's shoulders, pulling the blonde closer.
"I guess so. It just never occurred to me."
"What, that we'd be sleeping together in close proximity to your parents?" Cadie rested her cheek against Jo's shoulder and slid her hand under her shirt, trailing fingertips over tense stomach muscles. "Sweetheart, sex is not a requirement." She laughed softly. "We don't have to do anything you're not comfortable with. And believe it or not I can go a couple of weeks without it."
Jo could feel the blonde's grin and it flicked a switch in her head. Get over it, Jo-Jo, ya big coward. You're 33, not 13.
She unclipped her seatbelt and turned slightly so she could duck her head and capture Cadie's lips in a soft, sensual kiss. Cadie moaned faintly into her mouth and Jo met the sound with one of her own. Playfully she nibbled the blonde's bottom lip then gasped as Cadie turned the tables, using a hand through Jo's dark locks to pull her closer and intensify the contact.
Jo gently nudged her backwards until they were stretched along the narrow bench seat. She ignored the discomfort of the steering wheel digging into her thigh, concentrating instead on the entirely too sexy movements of the woman under her. <p. cadie wriggled blissfully under the weight of her much taller lover. jo's lips were wreaking havoc on her composure, trailing as they were along her jaw. She nuzzled the long neck close by, finding Jo's earlobe and gently biting down on it.
"You can't be comfortable," she murmured, knowing Jo's lanky form was tangled around the wheel and the gear stick.
"I'm just perfect," Jo burred, the sound turning to a whimper as Cadie explored the edges of her ear with her tongue.
The next several minutes were spent in a happy reconnaissance of each other's bodies, neither woman pushing the moment past the point of low burn.
"Mmmmmm, Jo-Jo?" It was a gasp more than a question, as Jo's fingers found a particularly sensitive spot.
"Yes?" the skipper breathed.
"I think the logistics of this are going to get the better of us."
"I know, but God, I'm having fun trying."
The words rumbled down Cadie's spine like a hum of electricity.
"You are driving me crazy. You know that, right?"
In answer, Jo nuzzled the curve of her breast one last time before pushing herself upright.
"Are you sure?" she asked, smiling as she pulled her partner up as well.
"Am I sure about what?"
"Are you sure you can go a couple of weeks without sex?"
Cadie laughed as she rearranged her fetchingly mussed hair. "Sex I can live without, darling," she said. "Doing without making love with you is another question altogether."
They giggled their way around another kiss as Jo fumbled for the ignition key. Before long she had the truck fired up and they were on their way again.
"We're taking a lot of detours on this trip," Cadie observed, happily settling her hormones into an undercurrent of tingles.
"Only way to travel," her lover purred around a feral, wildcat grin.
Maggie stood, hands on hips, at the threshold of what used to be her daughter's bedroom. For several years they had kept it exactly as Jo had left it. But as time had gone by and they needed it, the room had gradually become a storage space. Over the past few days Maggie had been emptying it out and restoring Jo's belongings to their proper place. As she stood at the door a flood of memories washed over her and she sighed, wondering if she would ever be able to think of that time without the hurt.
Posters of pop stars and athletes lined the walls, faces from 15 years ago lined up like a museum display. Teenage knickknacks were scattered around models her detail-driven daughter had put together from kits planes mostly, but some yachts. There were schoolbooks and in one corner, an enormous pile of albums and singles, all on vinyl, and an old portable record player. Books packed the shelves along the walls.
Maggie had to smile. When Jo wasn't helping her father out in one of the far flung paddocks, she was most often to be found in here, playing music, reading or tinkering with whatever gadget had caught her attention.
"She always did live inside her head," Maggie muttered to herself as she walked into the room for one last look before Jo's arrival. She glanced at the bed. It was a double, Jo's tall frame having outgrown the confines of a single bed before she was 15. "I hope there's enough room for the two of them in here." Maggie placed her fingers against her right temple in a bid to chase away the headache that was gnawing away at her last nerve. Don't want to think about that too much, do you, girl?
She'd spent most of the last week in the dual task of placating her husband and trying to get her own head around the reappearance of her daughter with girlfriend in tow. David Madison had been shocked into silence by the news that Jo was gay, involved and about to land on their doorstep. Maggie knew it had stirred up a lot of long-buried hurts for her husband, but there had been no way around telling him the news.
I wasn't going to let this chance to reconnect with Josie go by, she thought as she straightened the quilt cover on the bed. David had spent most of the last few days as far away from the house as he could get, starting his days early and not coming home till after dark. Doing his own thinking, I expect. Living in his head, just like his daughter. She smiled quietly to herself. I wonder if they realize how alike they are. I wish he would talk more.
She'd tried to persuade her husband to stay close by the house today, but he was determined to carry on as if there was nothing special about the day.
Our daughter's coming home. The thought still brought Maggie up short. Slowly she eased herself down onto the edge of the bed. The butterflies in her stomach were more like hummingbirds. Why am I nervous? she wondered. She's my own flesh and blood. She flicked at a speck of fluff on the cover.
The truth is it's not me or her I'm worried about. It's David.
The first year after Jo's disappearance had been a terrifying mix of uncertainty and stress that had taken a tremendous toll on them both. With no word from their daughter their lives had become an endless stream of phone calls to police, hospitals and government officials. Not knowing if Jossandra was alive or dead had been a nightmare neither of them could escape.
Maggie stood up and walked out into her kitchen. Three steps took her to the sink and its big window overlooking the garden and the track up to the house from the road.
We dealt with it so differently, she remembered. I threw myself into finding Josie and David ... She swallowed. David didn't seem to change much on the outside, but inside the stress was eating him alive. The heart attack had hit him while he was out on the far north boundary of the property. Pure luck and blind cussedness had kept him alive until the Royal Flying Doctors Service had been able to reach him.
"Everything changed after that," Maggie murmured, her eyes still on the dirt road that would soon bring her daughter home. David had needed bypass surgery and a long recuperation. They'd had to employ more men and a temporary station manager until he was back on his feet and ready to work again. It had almost cost them the farm, with only an understanding bank manager, a rare member of his species, between them and going under.
And just as things had started to improve, Josie had called them out of the blue one Sunday afternoon. Relief and shock had quickly been followed by anger, at least from David. She had never seen him so pale and shaky. It had crossed her mind that he was close to another coronary.
A lot of years have passed since then, Maggie thought. We've all changed, and no doubt Josie has, more than anyone. She turned away from the window and leaned back against the counter. I just hope we can all handle the consequences.