"Tell me again why we're still working for this woman?" Toby McIntyre looked up at his partner who sat across the wide desk from him. Jason looked back from behind his laptop, his round rimless glasses endearingly crooked.
"I think you're asking the wrong guy, right now, love." Jason answered wearily. "I don't have a clue. All I know is this week's been way too long."
Toby sighed and removed his own glasses before rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. "This whole damn year's been too long," he muttered.
Even now, deep on a Saturday night, in the privacy of their own home, the two PR men couldn't escape the idiosyncrasies of their unstable boss. Right now they were working on putting a positive spin on Senator Naomi Silverberg's latest indiscretion, a none-too-sober rant in the senate chamber on gay rights that had done little to further the cause. They weren't having a lot of luck.
Jason shut down his laptop and closed it. "Well, I don't think we're going to get much more accomplished tonight. Let's give it a rest, eh?"
Toby blinked at him through bloodshot eyes. "No argument from me," he murmured. There was a minute or so of pensive silence as both men just sat, lost in their own thoughts, too weary to do anything else.
"You think it's time to get out, don't you?" Jason finally asked, looking his partner in the eye. Toby gnawed on his bottom lip for a while before answering.
"I know we always said we were in this for the long haul," he replied quietly. Jason nodded. "But I think Naomi's lost it. And I don't just mean her usual rant and recover cycle. I mean I think she seriously is having some kind of breakdown. And whether she recovers from that or not, her career isn't going to be so easy to save." He paused and got up from his stool, taking his empty coffee cup over to the sink and washing it out. "And to be honest, I'm not sure I've got it in me to try anymore."
Jason sighed. He could hear the hurt and disappointment in his partner's voice. Toby had been the one who had involved them with Naomi in the first place, convinced by her charisma and commitment that they were on to a winner. Toby had been a true believer. And Jason knew how much this was hurting him.
"I know we said all those things," Jason said. "But she's not the person we first met anymore. Maybe it's time we start thinking about our own reputation first, instead of hers." He met the older man's eyes, knowing that it wasn't anything his partner particularly wanted to hear. Then again, he started this conversation.
Toby nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's pretty much what I've been thinking," he agreed, moving back to the table and wrapping Jason up in a hug from behind. "You think she's gone too far this time?"
Jason reached up and placed his hands over his lover's forearms. "Oh yeah. She was drunk when she gave that speech, yesterday, Tobes. And everyone knew it. Did you see the look on the Leader's face? I thought he was going to stroke out. Forget about the contents of the speech it was drivel, but that's not the point. She was slurring and swaying. Being drunk and disorderly 9000 miles away is one thing. Doing it right here, in the senate chamber to boot, is another thing altogether."
Toby rested his chin on Jason's head and sighed deeply. "I know. I think I'm just in denial."
"The bottom line is our reputation is going down the crapper with hers," Jason said, more harshly than he had intended. He felt Toby flinch and patted his arm gently. "It's salvageable, love. But I think we need to cut our losses now."
There was silence from behind him and he turned to face Toby as he felt him pull away. Jason watched as his partner leaned back on the kitchen counter, studying his feet.
"She's going to go ballistic when we tell her," Toby murmured.
Good, we've made the decision to go, then, Jason thought with relief. "Yeah, but we can't be worrying about her anymore."
"I know. To be honest, it's not us, or her for that matter, that I'm worried about." They locked eyes.
"Cadie," Jason said and Toby nodded.
"She has to come back here some time," Toby pointed out. "Even if she's going to stay with Jo long-term, and live in Australia, she can't start that process there, on the visa she's on at the moment. And Naomi's already got her buddies in Customs keeping an eye out for her. I don't think that can be a good thing, do you?"
Jason's brow furrowed. "You don't honestly think she'd do anything to hurt Cadie do you? Physically, I mean."
Toby shrugged. "All I know is she hates Jo enough to do almost anything," he replied. "No, I can't imagine her physically hurting Cadie." He folded his arms across his chest. "But can I imagine her doing almost anything to hurt Jo? You bet."
"And the quickest, surest way to hurt Jo ..." Jason left the thought unfinished.
"Mhmm." Toby nodded.
"So what do we do?"
Toby made a decision and stood upright. "Quit. And then track Cadie down and warn her."
Jo kicked the trail-bike into top gear and gunned the tough little machine along the dirt track. The engine kicked up throatily and she laughed into the wind, relishing the speed. She flicked a glance to her right and was unsurprised to see her partner matching her on the other side of the paddock. Cadie was leaning over the handlebars, a fierce look of concentration on her face as her bike slid and bumped over the rough track.
Between them was a stray calf which had become separated from its mother and the rest of the herd. The beast was lolloping up the centre of the paddock, all legs and stubborn determination as it ploughed through the foot-tall scrubby grass and bushes. Jo gunned the bike again, drawing level with the calf's shoulder. A crackling in her headset drew her attention.
"What do we do now?" came Cadie's voice, slightly breathless and distorted in Jo's ear.
"Get in front of it and cut it off, hopefully," Jo replied. She was about to suggest they keep pace with it until they were closer to the clearing at the end of the paddock, but Cadie was already in action. Another look to her right told Jo that the blonde was already pulling ahead of the calf and was looking for a chance to duck in front of it. "Cadie! Wait!" Jo yelled, but it was too late.
The American ducked her head and twisted the throttle hard, barely hanging on as the bike jumped forward. She was loving every minute of this chase and although she'd only learned to ride a few days before, she was relishing the feel of the power between her legs. The back wheel slipped and shimmied as it fought for traction in the dirt and Cadie felt her heart skip as she wrestled the bike back under her control. Okay, now to cut this calf off in its tracks, she decided. She was vaguely aware of Jo yelling in her ear, but her heart was pounding too loudly and the adrenalin was pumping too fast. Cadie was having a ball.
She pulled further ahead of the calf and saw her chance, ducking off the track and into the grass as she raced towards the center of the paddock. The ground was much rougher here, hidden rocks and dead branches making the bike jolt and shudder under her.
"Damn it, Cadie, slow down!" Jo yelled into the headset, watching the American fighting to keep the bike upright as she careered across the paddock. "Trouble magnet. She is a fair dinkum trouble magnet," she muttered to herself. With a sigh she put her head down and pushed her bike faster, deciding her best chance of averting a disaster would be to back Cadie up. One in, all in.
Cadie didn't see the fallen, dead tree until it was too late. She yelped as the front wheel of the bike clipped the log and before she could react her world was turned upside down. Jo watched in shock as her blonde partner went base over apex across the bike's handlebars, disappearing into the long grass with a dusty thud.
"Cadie!" Jo slid her bike to a shuddering halt, leaping off in one smooth, swift motion. Three long strides took her to where the American was lying on her back. Jo dropped down to her knees by Cadie's hips. "Sweetheart, are you all right?" she asked anxiously. She reached out, quickly running her hands over Cadie's legs, checking for breaks.
"Ow," Cadie said plaintively, her eyes squeezed shut.
"What hurts, baby? No, don't try to move," she said as Cadie attempted to sit up. "Just tell me where it hurts."
Cadie sighed loudly. "Just my pride I think, love," she replied. "Though my tailbone is smarting a bit."
Jo smiled. "Yeah, well, I'm not surprised. You came down from quite a height." She finished her quick inspection, satisfied that at worst Cadie had suffered bumps and bruises. "Can you sit up?"
Cadie took Jo's hands and gingerly pulled herself upright, wincing as strained ligaments and battered joints straightened themselves out.
"Dizzy?" Jo asked quietly, wondering if Cadie had hit her head.
"No, just a bit embarrassed," Cadie replied wryly. "Did you get the number of that truck that hit me?"
Jo laughed. "I was trying to tell you to wait till we got down to the end of the paddock, but you were having too much fun, I think." She grinned lopsidedly at her partner, who met her smile with a sheepish one of her own.
"Yeah, I was. Sorry about that."
Jo shrugged. "No skin off my butt, darling."
"Oh hardy, har, har." Cadie looked over at her bike, its wheels still spinning as it lay on the ground. She grimaced. "Did I completely trash it?" she asked anxiously.
Jo pushed herself up and stepped over to the machine, brushing her palm over the back wheel to stop it spinning, the roughness of the tread scrubbing against her skin. She picked the bike up, straightening the handlebars. The front wheel was bent, and she thought it was unridable, but nothing that couldn't be fixed later.
"Nah," she said casually. "But it isn't going anywhere for right now." She turned at the sound of giggling to find the calf, now calm and stationary, nuzzling the top of Cadie's head. Jo laughed so hard she doubled over.
"Get off me, ya big idiot," Cadie protested, even though she was almost helpless with laughter herself. The final indignity came when a long, soft, wet cow tongue slobbered up the side of her face. "Ewwwwwwwww. Jo, get this thing off me."
Jo staggered over to her bike, her giggles still making it hard for her to walk. She unhooked the length of rope she had brought along expressly for this purpose and began fashioning a lasso. Meanwhile Cadie had managed to extricate herself from the calf's attentions and was dusting herself off.
"Ugh," she muttered, wiping the slime from her cheek. "That was gross."
"But cute," Jo agreed, slipping the lasso over the now-compliant beast's head.
"Ugh, if you say so." Jo handed her the rope with another grin, but decided discretion was the better part of valor on this occasion. "Come on, Pedro," Cadie said, tugging the calf towards Jo's bike, which the taller woman was pulling up off the ground.
"Sure. Pedro the bull."
Jo laughed again. "She's gonna have a hard time living up to that name, love."
"Huh?" Cadie bent down and looked for the relevant pieces of anatomy and found them missing. "Oh. Sorry, Daisy."
Jo chuckled as she threw her leg over the bike's saddle. "Come on, Calamity Jane, let's get this happy wanderer back to her mum." She patted the pillion seat behind her. "Climb aboard."
"Oooo I think I'm going to enjoy this," Cadie decided as she slid into position. There wasn't a lot of room and she was wedged tightly against the warmth of Jo's back and rear end.
"Got enough room back there, love?" Jo asked.
"Nope. And loving it," Cadie promptly replied. "What are we going to do about my bike?" she asked.
"It'll be fine where it is for the night," Jo said as she gunned the bike into life. "It's not like it's going to rain or anything." She raised her voice above the growl of the engine. "Hughie can pick it up in the ute tomorrow."
Cadie handed the rope back to Jo and settled her arms around her lover's waist while Jo tied the rope off to the handlebars. As usual she was loving being this close to her soulmate and she took the opportunity to plant a kiss on the back of Jo's earlobe, provoking a smile from the taller woman.
"What was that for?"
"Proximity," Cadie said pragmatically. "Is Daisy going to be okay being dragged along by us?"
"Yeah, sure," Jo answered easily. "We're not going to go too fast and besides," she gestured towards the passive calf, "she doesn't look like she wants to do anything but follow us home." She looked back over her shoulder at the pair of green eyes blinking steadily back at her. "Ready?"
Cadie patted Jo's stomach. "Lead on McDuff."
"Mmmm, stick a fork in me, I'm done," Jo purred as she rolled onto her back in the cool grass of her parents' back garden. She dropped her now denuded paper plate beside her and tucked her hands behind her head, contentedly. Her belly was full, the stars were out and her family was all around her. Never thought I'd ever experience that again, she reflected as she gazed up into the clear black sky. And that's all down to Cadie. Jo glanced over to her partner, unsurprised to see the compact American making her way through an enormous bowl of Maggie Madison's homemade apple crumble, doused in hot custard. Jo chuckled, a sound which caught Cadie's attention.
"Yeah, you look like you're done, Jo-Jo," Cadie mumbled around a mouthful of the sweet treat. "It's a good thing we've been working hard these past few weeks or I'd be the size of a house by now." She grinned at her mother-in-law who was lounging in the deckchair. "There's no way I'm leaving without a whole book full of your recipes, Maggie. This is sensational." She took another spoonful of crumble.
"Thank you," Maggie said as she smiled fondly back at the blonde whose appetite seemed to be outstripped only by her metabolism. "When do you think you'll have to go back?"
It was a question they'd all been avoiding for a week or so. The three weeks since Jack Collingwood's arrest had been busy and enjoyable ones for them all. Cadie and Jo had mucked in around the property, more than making up for Jack's departure and giving David time to advertise and interview prospective new station managers.
Without a lot of success, Maggie thought glumly. And they can't stay forever. The question hung in the air for a few seconds before Jo cleared her throat.
"Well, I can't really stay away from Cheswick Marine much longer," she said quietly. "We're about to get into the really busy season."
"Northern hemisphere summer," Cadie murmured.
"Mhmm," Jo confirmed. "And Cadie's visa runs out in," she looked across at the blonde, "when is it? Soon?"
Cadie did a quick calculation in her head, the result taking her by surprise. "Thirteen days," she said quietly.
Jo did a double-take, startled by Cadie's answer. Where the hell did that time go? "Really?" Her heart sank when Cadie nodded, their eyes meeting in a quiet acknowledgement of the reality of the situation. "Damn."
Maggie watched the silent interplay between her daughter and daughter-in-law. For the first time she realized that, despite the seemingly perfect match of their two personalities, the couple still had obstacles to overcome.
"How long will it be before you can come back, Cadie?" she asked quietly.
The American held Jo's gaze for a few more seconds before she turned and smiled gently at Maggie. "A few weeks, at least," she said. "I have some work I have to do to make my business run a little more efficiently from here, including making some changes to bank accounts and things like that. Then, of course, there are still some loose ends to be tied up with my ex." She dropped her eyes, suddenly wishing she never had to deal with Naomi Silverberg again.
"Do you really have to see her?" Jo asked. She regretted the question immediately as Cadie's green eyes flicked her way again. A conversation better had in private, Jo-Jo, you idiot, she chastised herself. "Forget I asked that," she said.
"No, it's okay," Cadie said, reaching out and patting her partner's knee reassuringly. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that Maggie was the last person on the planet to make judgments and she didn't have a problem talking about Naomi in front of her. Even if Jo does, she acknowledged. And it won't do her any harm to let her parents in a little more. "I'm not even sure I will have to see her, Jo," she said aloud. "First I have to figure out just what she pulled out of the Chicago house and sent to Mom and Dad. If there's anything still there that I need, I'll have to go and retrieve it. She might be in DC, with any luck."
There was a pause as David walked back into the circle of conversation. He'd been scraping down the barbecue plate after cooking them all a lavish main course of steak, sausages, and lamb chops. Now he wandered over to his chair, a plate of apple crumble in one hand and a cold glass of white wine in the other.
"Who might be in DC?" he asked as he sat down.
"Cadie's ex-girlfriend," Maggie said. "If you're going to wander away, love, you're going to miss half the conversation." She tucked her arm into his elbow and rested her head against his shoulder.
"Ah well, someone has to do the tidying up around here," he replied mellowly. He glanced at Cadie. "Your ex is the politician, right?"
Cadie nodded, ignoring the snort of derision coming from the long, tall body next to her on the grass. "That's right," she said. "A senator."
David looked almost impressed. Almost. "Pretty important person, huh," he said between mouthfuls of crumble.
"She thinks so," Cadie replied quietly. "Or she did. I don't really know what she thinks now." She felt Jo's hand against the small of her back, circling in slow, reassuring movements against her skin.
"Josie, are you going to go back with Cadie?" Maggie asked. She thought she knew the answer to that already, but for three weeks she had been waiting for an opportunity to finally talk to her daughter really talk to her and so far, this looked like the best chance.
Cadie felt Jo's hand momentarily stop its movement and she slipped her own hand to the inside of the taller woman's knee. With a gentle squeeze she did some reassuring of her own.
"Um, I can't really, Mum," Jo muttered. "Bad time to leave the business."
David and Maggie looked at each other. Unspoken between them was a conversation they had had many times since Jo and Cadie had arrived. How to broach the subject of Jo's past how to tell her that they already knew, that it was okay. David knew his wife was burning to keep this conversation going and he nodded at the raised eyebrow she quirked in his direction.
"It's survived all right without you for the last three weeks, Josie-love. I'm sure it could manage a few more," she said, taking her cue from her husband and pressing on. "You've obviously got good people looking after things for you."
Jo cleared her throat, obviously uncomfortable. Cadie swallowed around the lump she felt in her own throat, sensing that there was a certain inevitability to this conversation. Need to make her feel safe, she realized. Turning slightly in Jo's arms she leaned and put her mouth close to her lover's ear.
"Whatever their reaction, my love, we can get through it," she whispered, feeling Jo pressing against her. "And don't underestimate them. My gut says trust them."
Jo pulled back far enough to look into Cadie's eyes. "I'm scared," she whispered back.
"I know," Cadie replied. "But we can do this."
Jo blinked, feeling the knot in her stomach tighten and twist. She knew this moment had been coming for days, weeks even. For three weeks she had ducked and weaved around it, even though a large part of her wanted very much to get this conversation over and done with. But now the moment had come, she found herself trembling. Cadie's fingers wrapped warmly around her own and squeezed gently. Jo took one last look into loving green eyes and breathed in deeply.
"Mum, I can't go to the United States because I have a criminal record," she said. Two sets of parental eyes looked at her steadily. "And I'm not talking about petty stuff," she continued shakily. "There are things on my record that would make any Customs officer stop me at the gate, without a second's hesitation." She dropped her eyes, a flush of shame coloring her cheeks. "And rightly so, probably," she muttered softly. Cadie's thumb chafed the back of her hand slowly.
Cadie looked at her parents-in-law. They were calm and Maggie even smiled slightly as they watched Jo struggling. I'm missing something here, Cadie thought. They're almost reacting as if they al- ... She gasped, realization hitting her like a baseball bat between the eyes. They already know. Son of a-
"Do you want to tell us more about it, Josie?" Maggie asked quietly. She wanted so desperately to have this conversation done with. Fear and shame had held her daughter back from them for too long as it was. They'd come too far in the past few weeks to let ancient history keep them apart now. But a hand on her arm stopped her from pushing further.
David wasn't sure he could stand this much longer. His daughter was suffering. She was stumbling and stuttering over her words, and there was pain written all over her face. He leaned forward towards her, resting his elbows on his knees.
"Enough, Maggie," David said softly. He turned back to Jo and reached out with his left hand, waiting until she hesitantly took it, her fingers almost shy in his larger, callused palm.
Jo couldn't remember the last time her father had ever held her hand. His skin was rough, but familiar, and she felt a wash of safety rush over her with a warmth that was almost startling. She blinked up into grey eyes that were steady and calm.
"Josie, we know," her father said simply.
Confused, she tilted her head, trying to figure out what he was saying. "You know what?" she finally asked.
"Everything," Maggie replied.
"We know about your record, and the things you did in Sydney," her father continued. "Terrible things you did," he conceded, gripping his daughter's hand tighter when his words prompted her to try and withdraw. "But you made good, Josie. Tried your best to make up for what you did."
"I can't ever do that," Jo half-sobbed, hoarsely. Cadie held her other hand fiercely. "Not ever. No matter what I do the rest of my life." Tears made her voice ragged, its harshness making them all wince.
Maggie couldn't stand it any longer. She slipped down out of her chair onto her knees in the grass in front of Jo. With both hands she cupped the tortured face before her and held it steadily.
"Josie, stop. Don't do this to yourself. Please."
"You know?" Jo's eyes widened, as if her father's words were only just sinking in. "How can you possibly know?"
"When you turned yourself in to the police ... well, Ken Harding made it his business to tell us what was going on," Maggie explained, knowing that on some levels Jo would find the policeman's actions a betrayal.
"Harding?" It was all getting a bit much for Jo.
"Yes, love." Maggie smiled softly at the younger woman's confusion. "He's become quite a good friend to us."
Cadie shook her head in wonder. "He never let on," she murmured. Jo had no idea what to think or what to feel. On the one hand she was angry with Harding for going where he had had no business going. On the other hand, he's done me a favor, she realized. They've had time to absorb this and come to some kind of peace about it. How, I have no idea.
Maggie kept her hands around Jo's face, gently stroking at the trail of tears with the pads of her thumbs. "It's okay, sweetheart," she whispered. "I promise you, it's okay."
Over her mother's shoulder Jo saw David nod and it was like someone broke open the dam of fear and uncertainty that had blocked her emotions for so long. A strangled sob forced its way out of her and soon the cries came bubbling up. Maggie gathered her in, wrapping long arms around Jo until finally her daughter gave in and collapsed into her embrace.
Cadie let go of Jo's hand long enough to let Maggie take over the comforting. The American felt her own tears well up and she placed a hand over her mouth, trying to stay quiet. She watched as David reached over his wife's shoulder and gently ran his fingers through Jo's unruly fringe.
Thank God, Cadie thought. Thank God.
Maggie closed her eyes as she held her child close against her chest. Sobs wracked Jo's body, her breath coming in long, hitching gasps as she cried. Maggie heard herself making the soothing sounds of comfort only a mother seems to know. Memories flooded her consciousness, other times when a much younger Jossandra had needed her this way. A lost puppy when she was four, a broken arm when she eight. Maggie's eyes opened again. And when Phil killed himself. That was the beginning of the end. She felt Jo's arms squeeze tighter around her waist. And this is the end of the new beginning, she realized. Now we can really start to be a family again. "I'm sorry," Jo kept saying, over and over. "I'm so sorry."
"What are you sorry for, love?" Maggie asked quietly. She could feel David behind her shoulder, his calm presence rock steady even as his fingers continued to lightly stroke Jo's head.
"I never meant for all that to happen," Jo moaned. "I never meant to become that person. I just ... I just ..."
"Sshhh ... it's all right. It's all done and over with now," her mother soothed.
"But that's just it, it's not done with," Jo insisted. "Not in my head. Not ever."
"And maybe that's just something you're meant to live with, Josie," Maggie argued. "But that's not a reason to shut people out or isolate yourself. And it's no reason to be afraid of your father and me."
"We're not going to lose you again," David said firmly. "I don't like what you did, Josie, not one bit of it. I'll admit to that and it's something you and I are going to have to learn to deal with. But we're going to do that together. And nothing you can tell me, nothing you can do will ever separate me from my love for you. Do you understand that?"
Jo blinked at her father, her blue eyes wide and moist with tears that threatened to spill over again. "I didn't," she admitted. "But I'm trying to understand it now."
David nodded. "I know. And perhaps the only thing that will make it clear for you is time. But we've got plenty of that now." He cupped her cheek with his rough palm. "Thank you for coming home again."
Jo turned her head slightly, tilting it in Cadie's direction. "I can't take credit for that, Dad," she said hoarsely. "Without Cadie's encouragement I can't say that I would have."
David nodded and looked calmly at Cadie. The blonde was still fighting her own tears, her hand covering her mouth. "Are you all right, little one?" he asked.
Cadie sniffled and took a deep breath. "Y-yes, I think so," she replied, a little nonplussed by the term of endearment, something she hadn't heard from David before. "I just don't like to see her hurting." She nodded in Jo's direction. "It gives me a stomachache."
David smiled kindly, his grey eyes twinkling as if he recognized the feeling somewhere deep inside. "I think it's a good thing that we had this conversation, though," he replied. "Don't you?"
"Oh yes," Cadie agreed. "It's been a long time coming."
"That it has," David murmured. He looked at his family. Jo had stopped crying and was leaning wearily against her mother. Maggie looked happier than he could remember seeing her in a long time. Mothers and their daughters. He smiled at the picture. For the first time in ... well, years ... he felt like something was going right. "Who wants another drink?" He grinned as hesitant chuckles broke out from the three women in his life.
"Make mine a double," Jo muttered.
"How does it feel?" Cadie whispered. Jo's ebony hair was splayed across the American's bare chest and Cadie could feel her partner's warm breath against the skin of her neck.
"Mmmm," Jo rumbled. "Feels pretty good to me," she replied, letting her fingers slide under the sheet and across the silky surface of Cadie's stomach. They were both naked, something they hadn't made a habit of in the three weeks they had been at Coonyabby. But for some reason, tonight they had both opted for skin, though they hadn't talked about it at all. Cadie chuckled.
"You know that wasn't what I was talking about, wicked woman," she murmured happily.
"I know," Jo burred close to her ear. "But you didn't really expect me to resist, did you?" Cadie shivered as Jo's rich alto tingled its way down her spine. They were both a little drunk, she knew, but she was rather hoping that would loosen the inhibitions that had kept their more amorous activities to a minimum during their stay in Jo's childhood bedroom. Not that we've exactly been abstaining, she thought with a grin as Jo continued to nuzzle her neck. We've just indulged Jo's taste for the outdoors a little more than usual.
"What are you purring about?" Jo slid her leg across Cadie's thighs, relishing the way their bodies just melded together.
"I was remembering our little adventure in the barn yesterday," Cadie replied. She turned her head and buried her nose in Jo's hair, breathing deeply of her partner's faint, but uniquely gorgeous scent. They had indulged themselves in what could only be described as a laughter-filled roll in the hay during the afternoon, taking advantage of the fact Jo's parents were out of hearing range. Mmmmm. Jo laughed quietly. It had been a delicious interlude that had led into a quite extraordinary evening. Can't believe it's all out in the open now, she thought with relief.
"You haven't answered my question." She was brought back to the present by her lover's gentle reminder.
"It feels a little surreal," Jo replied after a brief pause to collect her thoughts. She lifted herself up a little and rested her chin on Cadie's chest, looking up into the gentle green eyes trained on her. "I feel a lot lighter," she admitted, smiling back when Cadie's face broke into an unrestrained grin. "Yeah, I know, I should have talked to them a long time ago."
"That's not what I was thinking," Cadie replied, shaking her head. "You couldn't tell them until you were ready to, and you haven't been ready to. So second-guessing yourself doesn't serve any purpose." Cadie looked down at Jo, whose expression had turned pensive. "Are you angry with Detective Harding?"
Blue eyes swung back into focus. "Yes," Jo answered honestly. "But how can I be, really?" She rolled away from Cadie, onto her back. "He made it so much easier for me ... and for them too, I guess." She turned her head to look at the blonde. "Know what I mean?"
Cadie nodded. "He took away your right to tell who you wanted, when you wanted," she said softly. "On the other hand, he probably saved your parents five years of worrying. And allowed them to get to a place where they could accept you back into their lives without a hesitation."
"So I guess I owe him another carton of cigarettes and a case of Johnny Walker," she said happily."
"At least," Cadie agreed.
"They really didn't hesitate, did they?" The wonder of it was still something Jo was coming to terms with. She had a childlike look of amazement on her face that was obvious even in the dim glow of the candles that were scattered around the room.
"Not even for a nanosecond," Cadie confirmed. She pushed herself up on one elbow, and looked down at her dark-haired lover. "They're a wonderful pair, Jo-Jo," she said.
Jo looked up at her. "Yes, they are." She reached up and pushed a lock of pale hair out of Cadie's eyes. "Thank you for bringing me back to them," she said simply.
"I think you would have made it back to them, without me," Cadie answered.
Jo shook her head. "Thank god I never have to do anything without you again," she murmured. She slid her hand around to the back of Cadie's neck and gently pulled her down into a long, slow kiss that held a lot of promise. Cadie felt a languid tingle begin somewhere south of her waist. It could have been the kissing or it could have been the sensual explorations of Jo's hands as they brushed across the skin of her shoulders and lower back.
"Mmm, I want to make love to you, Jossandra," Cadie growled softly against her lover's earlobe. She lifted herself up until she had a hand on either side of Jo's torso, and then she pushed herself up until she could look directly down into the shadowed face below her. "Will you let me?"
Jo was already beyond the point of being able to deny Cadie anything. Her general lightness of being seemed to extend to any inhibitions she had previously held about being in her childhood bed, with her parents a few feet away behind a wall.
"Yes, my love, I will," she whispered.
It was only a soft cry, but it was enough to pull Maggie from a light sleep. She had startled at first but when the sound came again, this time it provoked nothing but a soft smile.
Well, it's about time, she thought even as David snuggled closer against her back. Not that she was fooling herself that her daughter and daughter-in-law had been leading a chaste life of late. One look at them when they had come back from the barn yesterday had confirmed that. They had both been flushed and giggling. Not to mention the fact they were covered in hay stalks, she remembered with another smile.
"What are you chuckling about?" David mumbled against her shoulder, his rough hands warm and familiar against her stomach. Another small cry from the other side of the wall interrupted Maggie's reply and grey eyes blinked open in the darkness. "What the hell is-"
"You don't want to know, darling, trust me," his wife replied softly, patting his hands.
"Huh? What do you mean?" She looked back over her shoulder at him, lifting a knowing eyebrow as she waited for him to connect the dots. Finally the light dawned. "Oh, for god's sake, I didn't need to know that." He grimaced and buried his face in her hair.
"I think it's wonderful," Maggie said, amused by his squeamishness. "They finally feel comfortable here, David. Don't you think that's a good thing?"
"I'm not listening," he mumbled. "My brain is dribbling out my ears as we speak."
A soft echo of an invocation to something divine floated through the wall, and even the usually unembarrassable Maggie blushed.
"Seems to run in the family," David muttered, provoking a wave of giggles from his wife.
Cadie was relieved that Jo was so lost in the moment that she hadn't heard the unmistakable sounds of her mother laughing on the other side of the wall between the two bedrooms. That would seriously blow the mood, she thought as she gently coaxed her partner down from the high she'd reached.
Finally blue eyes blinked at her from under half-closed lids.
"Hi, sweetheart," Cadie whispered, smiling as Jo wrapped long arms around her and pulled her closer.
"Damn woman, you are awesome," Jo sighed blissfully. Cadie chuckled against her neck.
"You're inspiring, sweetheart," Cadie replied.
"Mmm, well, you're inspiring me to return the favor," her lover answered, using her greater body mass to flip them over until she was leaning over the blonde.
This time the groan was higher-pitched, longer-lasting and much less articulate. David raised an eyebrow which his wife could barely see in the gloom.
"Impressive," he said.
Even in the dark Maggie recognized the gleam in his eyes. "Seems that runs in the family too," she murmured.
"Is that a challenge?" her husband asked.
"More an invitation."
"Good morning," Cadie said with a smile when she walked out into the kitchen. Jo had already left with her father, allowing the American to grab another couple of hours sleep. I guess a couple of hours are better than none, she thought, barely suppressing a well-satisfied grin. And there are definitely worse reasons for losing sleep.
Maggie looked up at her daughter-in-law's entrance, noticing the half-formed smirk on the American's sunny face. Can't blame her for that. And it's not like you don't have your own reasons for smiling, Maggie Madison.
"Morning," she happily returned. The two women caught each other's eye and flushed simultaneously. "Tch, look at us," Maggie muttered. "Blushing like a couple of schoolgirls."
Cadie chuckled. "Well, you have to admit, it's not the most usual of situations," she said, grinning as she watched Maggie push a lock of her hair behind her ear in a self-conscious gesture that Cadie recognized.
"True," the older woman agreed. "I thought David was going to have an epileptic fit." She grinned at Cadie.
"He obviously got over it," Cadie quipped, laughing when Maggie covered her face with her hands in mortification. "Too late to get embarrassed now, Maggie."
"Yes, I suppose it is, really." She lifted the sizzling frying pan, showing Cadie the bacon and eggs. "Breakfast?"
"Mmmmm, yes please," Cadie replied. "For some strange reason, I'm ravenous."
Maggie snorted. "Fancy that."
Cadie accepted the warm plate of food and sat down at the kitchen table, waiting while Maggie assembled her own breakfast and joined her. They chewed in companionable silence for a while before Cadie put down her fork.
"Jo and I figured out that we need to start heading back tomorrow," she said quietly. She watched as Maggie slowly finished her mouthful and then put down her fork. "I know we've got another couple of weeks really till I need to go, but there are a lot of things we need to get squared away before we can leave again." Maggie raised an eyebrow and Cadie continued. "Jo's going to come as far as Sydney with me."
Maggie smiled. "Putting off the inevitable as long as possible, eh?" she said kindly. Cadie nodded silently, dropping her eyes against a sudden, and surprising, threat of tears. The older woman reached over and patted her hand. "It's okay, sweetie, I understand," she said. There was another pause as both women contemplated the girls' imminent departure. Cadie's hand turned in Maggie's larger one and returned the reassuring squeeze. "We've been delighted that you could both stay as long as you have. We've had a great visit."
Cadie looked up again and broke into a wobbly smile. "We sure have," she agreed. "Thank you for making me feel like part of the family. I've really appreciated that."
"Tch, you are part of the family Cadie," Maggie said firmly. "Even the Neanderthal I'm married to can see that." She grinned.
"He's been lovely," Cadie replied, remembering David's unexpected affection for her the night before. "And I don't think he's a Neanderthal at all," she said. "It's been an awful lot to absorb for him, I think."
Maggie nodded. "That's true. It took him a bit longer than I would have liked but I think he's with the program now." That provoked a laugh from Cadie. "The Maggie Madison Diversity Acceptance Program." She grinned as the American spluttered around a mouthful of bacon. "Try not to choke, sweetie. That would be really hard to explain to Josie."
David glanced across at his silent daughter. They'd barely said a word to each other since grabbing a quick bacon sandwich each and heading out for the back lots of the property. He wasn't too concerned though. As far as he could figure out the silence wasn't about last night's revelations, but more about fatigue. David stifled a yawn. God knows, neither of us got much in the way of sleep, he thought. Boy, I hope that doesn't come up in conversation. Somehow he doubted that it would. I like knowing we can be honest with each other from now on, though, he decided. It's a good feeling. He stifled a grin as he caught Jo's head drooping and he deliberately dipped the ute into a pothole, jolting them both.
"Ow, shit," Jo yelped as her temple hit the metal stanchion of the ute's door none too gently. "What did we hit?" she asked, looking at her father. "And what are you grinning about?" She rubbed at the sore spot.
"You wouldn't have been falling asleep there would ya now, Josie?" David asked. "Expect you to be looking out for things we need to fix, not taking a nap." He tried to sound severe, but he was just in too good a mood.
"I wasn't asleep," Jo denied. She grinned back at him. "I was just resting my eyes for a second."
"Resting them pretty well, then. They were snoring."
"I was NOT snoring," Jo yelled. She glared at the older man for a few seconds but neither of them could keep up the pretence any longer. Laughter exploded out of them both and David reached across and shoved his daughter's shoulder playfully. Wow, he's in a good mood, she thought. "So what's got you all blissy?" she asked cheekily.
David shrugged. "It's a beautiful morning, we don't have a hell of a lot of work we need to do out here and," he turned his head and looked deliberately into the blue eyes gazing back at him. "I have my daughter back." He smiled, facing the front again as he guided the ute around a fallen tree.
Jo dropped her eyes. "Well, unfortunately, we pretty much figured out that we need to start heading back, probably tomorrow," she said quietly.
"That's not what I meant," David answered.
Jo felt herself blushing. "I know," she muttered. There was a pregnant pause as she thought about the previous evening. Such a simple conversation, really, she thought. But look at the effect it's already had. She glanced over at her father again. Maybe now I can talk to him about money and he might actually listen.
Her train of thought was interrupted by their arrival at the day's destination, a small, derelict storage shed that was in dire need of rebuilding. Jo sighed, knowing that her father was likely to push pretty hard to get the job done. She mentally rolled up her sleeves.
"Come on, girl," David said gruffly as he opened his door and slid out of the truck. "Work to be done."
Naomi slowly swirled the scotch in her glass, watching the ice cubes clink together as the amber liquid washed around them. It was her fourth scotch of the evening, not that she was counting. The alcohol hadn't come close to touching the cold knot of fury in her stomach, however. It was just one more thing that was driving the senator to distraction.
A long, tedious day in her DC office had ended with an infuriating conversation with her public relations staff, Jason and Toby. Ex-staff, she reminded herself. Treacherous bastards. She knocked back the last of the drink in one angry gulp before reaching again for the half-empty scotch bottle balanced precariously on the arm of her chair. She poured another, this time turning a double into a triple.
Naomi looked around the darkened apartment. Her housekeeper had handed in her notice the week before and already the place was beginning to look like a bomb had hit it. Treacherous bitch. Over by the front door, the remains of a crystal vase she vaguely recalled it being a present from Cadie's mother lay scattered on the carpet, the remnants of her conversation with Jason and Toby. It had missed them by inches.
"What is it with everyone?" Naomi muttered, tilting her glass and taking another swallow. The harsh heat of the scotch burned its way down her throat and settled in the pit of her stomach. Instead of the calming effect she was hoping for, a rolling ball of nausea made her wince. Everybody's leaving me, she thought morosely. Self-pity welled up in her momentarily but was soon replaced by another wave of anger and resentment. Fuck them. Fuck them all.
She stood and carried her glass over to the big bay window that looked out on the city streets. I don't need a goddamn single one of them. New people, that's what I need around me. New people and new plans. She took another drink. Except Cadie. She's the only thing I want back. She smiled grimly as the plan she had been hatching for weeks formed itself in her mind once more. The details had been lovingly crafted through many sleepless nights and the time was rapidly approaching when she could actually make it happen.
And then Cadie will be back here, where she belongs, Naomi thought, a tiny kernel of anticipation warming through the nausea. That's all it will take. Once she's back here and away from that Australian bitch, she'll see that she made a mistake and that she really belongs here. "She'll see."
A giggle escaped, its sound hollow and eerie in the empty room. "She'll see."
"Cadie!" Maggie leaned out the back door of the homestead, hoping her voice would carry to the stables. She was in the middle of a marathon baking session and didn't feel inclined to leave her scone mixture while she traipsed down to the barn. She held still for a moment, listening for a response from the American, but none was forthcoming. "Damn it," she muttered.
She picked up the phone again. "I'm sorry, but Cadie's not within shouting range at the moment. Can I take a message?"
The man on the other end of the phone cleared his throat hesitantly. "Um, yes please," he said, his American accent curling around the words intriguingly. "Could you ask her to call Toby Maguire at home, please? She has my number, I'm sure."
Maggie wrote the name down. "Is it urgent?" she asked, conscious of the long-distance call and the time difference.
There was a long pause as if the man couldn't quite decide. "No, not urgent exactly," he said finally. "But she needn't worry about waiting till its morning here. She can call any time."
Sounds pretty urgent to me, Maggie thought. "Okay, well, I'll get her to call you as soon as she gets back to the house," she replied.
"Thanks," Toby said.
"No worries." The line went dead and Maggie pondered the latest development in her daughters' lives. "Hmmm." She went back to her baking and began kneading the ball of dough that was sitting on the wooden countertop. "Maybe I should go and find Cadie," she muttered to herself.
The woman in question was knee-deep in horse manure at that moment. Cadie wielded the shovel enthusiastically as she mucked out the stables. Tilly and the two colts looked over their stall doors at the blonde who was dancing as she worked to the tune blaring from the small radio which rested on the top of the rail. It was late afternoon and after a day spent helping Maggie around the house, Cadie had volunteered to do one of the Hughie's chores. The young Aborigine was out working on his own today, she knew, and would appreciate one less thing to do when he got back to the homestead.
"Wide open spaces," she warbled, totally unconcerned that she was making the Dixie Chicks sound distinctly ordinary. Singing was not one of Cadie's fortes, unlike her more musical partner, but that didn't stop her, usually. Certainly not when there were only three horses to complain. Not that they were. She glanced over at the equines who gazed back at her placidly. "Pretty good, huh, guys?" she asked them rhetorically.
"Well, I've heard worse," Tilly replied, startling the American no end. Cadie turned and grinned at her mother-in-law.
"You scared me out of about five years' growth," she said, provoking a chuckle from the older woman, who leaned on the doorpost of the stable.
"I guess that's happened to you quite a few times, huh?" Maggie quipped, looking the petite blonde up and down.
Cadie's eyes widened. "Was that a short joke?" she said, affecting mock outrage. "Boy, it's not enough I get it from the younger one, now I have to put up with it from the older version as well?" She threw her hands in the air, breaking into a grin when she heard Maggie laugh.
"Sorry about that, shortie. No wonder you couldn't hear me yelling," Maggie said, reaching for the radio and turning it down.
"Oh, sorry," Cadie said, abashed. "I got a bit carried away."
"Mhmm." Maggie smiled kindly at the blonde, loving the girl's enthusiasm. "You just had a phone call from America," she said. Cadie looked startled, as if it was the last thing in the world she expected. Interesting.
"My mother?" Cadie asked.
"Nope. A man called Toby Maguire," Maggie replied, taking in the blonde's reaction.
"Ah." Cadie's eyes took on a faraway look for a few seconds and then she refocused on Jo's mother. "Sorry. Um, he's my ex-partner's PR guy," she explained. "And whatever he's calling for, it can't be good news."
"Oh dear," Maggie responded. "He said it wasn't necessarily urgent, but could you call him at home as soon as you can."
Cadie sighed. This can't be good, she thought. If it was a social call he would have just waited till we got back to Shute Harbor. And if he wanted to book another holiday he would have gone ahead and done that with Doris. Damn.
Maggie watched the range of emotions crossing Cadie's expressive face.
"My guess is, Naomi's gone and done something stupid and irrational," Cadie muttered. "And the bad news is, he wouldn't be bothering me with that unless it had some repercussions for Jo and I."
"Ah," Maggie replied noncommittally. "But she's an awfully long way away, Cadie. What can she really do?"
Cadie leaned the shovel against the wall of the stable and pulled off the rubber work boots she had worn to clean out the stalls. There was no easy answer to that question. She really had no idea anymore just how far Naomi would go or how many strings she would, or could, pull.
"That is the sixty-four million dollar question," she murmured.
Jo handed the hammer back to her father and watched him lovingly wrap it in an old rag and tuck it back into its proper place in the toolbox. He's always been like that, she thought. So particular about his tools. She thought about her own habits when she was onboard Seawolf, recognizing for the first time the little traits she'd obviously inherited. No wonder Cadie keeps smirking at me like she's got some secret, she realized, smiling at the thought. She's seeing me through my parents for the first time. It was a minor revelation and she took a few seconds to look more closely at her father who was now wiping off his calloused hands.
They'd worked like demons through the morning, skipping lunch to get the barn back into a usable state. Jo was sore in places she'd forgotten she had muscles. They really could have used Hughie's help with it but she was glad, in the end, that her father had opted to send the young man out on his own. It'll make it easier for me to talk to Dad, she decided.
Wearily, she dropped down into the dirt and leaned against the side of the ute, grateful for the meager shade the vehicle provided. It was mid-afternoon and the sun was still wickedly hot. Her father eased down beside her and handed her a foil-wrapped package of sandwiches and a cold can he'd retrieved from the esky, a foam cooler tucked into a corner of the ute's tray.
"There you go," he said, cracking open the seal on his own soda with a satisfying whoosh of air.
"Thanks." Jo swallowed long, cool draughts of the liquid, the first few mouthfuls barely touching the sides. "Mmm, that's better," she said with sigh as she took the edge off her thirst.
"We've done well there," David said, nodding towards the barn. "Didn't think we'd be as far along as we've gotten. Thanks for your help."
Jo glanced at him quickly, then went back to her sandwich. "You don't have to thank me, Dad," she said. "It's been fun. The whole visit has been fun, actually."
He nodded silently, preferring to chew rather than talk. Jo hesitated, knowing that now was probably her best, last chance to talk with her father candidly about the state of the property. But she was also acutely aware that she was, in effect, a Johnny-come-lately, and telling her father how to run the farm was akin to teaching a grandmother to suck eggs. Not that she wanted to tell him how to run it, exactly.
"Hmmm?" David was still looking over the barn between mouthfuls, figuring what, if anything, still needed to be done before they headed back to the homestead.
"Can I ask you something personal?" She watched as his eyes flicked quickly back to hers and he paled slightly. Jo raised a hand in quick reassurance. "Not personal, exactly," she said hastily. God, I hope he doesn't think I wanted to talk about ... ugh, m'just not going there. "I mean, can I ask you about Coonyabby?"
David relaxed visibly and he shrugged. "Sure," he answered. "Ask away."
"Okay." Jo thought carefully about how to approach this. "I know things have been pretty tough around here the last few years, what with the drought and all."
Her father shrugged again. "Nothing much changes out here on the land, Josie, you know that," he answered. "If it's not a drought then it's a flood. If it's not a flood it's the salinity. If it's not salinity it's erosion. There's always something out here making it tough."
Jo nodded. It was a familiar refrain that she'd heard from her father and his fellow farmers all through her childhood. "But I mean, it's been tougher than usual though, hasn't it?"
David looked at his daughter. He had a fair inkling of where she was going with this and he swallowed the urge to let his pride do his talking for him. Don't get all up on your high horse with her now, mate.
"Yeah this has been a rough one," he conceded. He could see she was trying to ask him outright just what the financial bottom line was, and he decided to put her out of her misery. "We're not making money, that's for sure," he admitted. "Haven't been for a long time." He screwed up the foil that had been wrapped around his sandwiches and flicked it from hand to hand. "Last year I had to refinance just to keep the stock in feed through the winter." That had been tough to swallow.
Jo listened in silence. Nothing she was hearing was surprising her any. She only had to look around Coonyabby to know that her parents were barely keeping their heads above water.
"Cadie and I have been talking a lot about this," she started. "We've ... um ... we've got quite a bit of money put away and ... well ... basically, Dad," she took a deep breath and ploughed on, "basically, we want to help, any way we can." Jo saw her father open his mouth to respond and she rushed on. "We can afford it and it would mean a lot to us both ... it would mean a lot to me ... if you'd let us."
David smiled. For once ... finally ... he just let his daughter's good intentions override their history. She's got a lot of her mother in her, he thought, watching the anxious blue eyes across from him.
"I can't let you do that, Josie," he replied quietly, stilling her response with a touch of his hand on her thigh. "It's not that I don't appreciate the offer. I do. But you'd be throwing good money after bad. And I'm not going to let you do that when you've got your own business and future to look after."
"Dad, it's not going to jeopardize any of that," Jo insisted. "We can afford it. Really." She shifted around so she could face him. "I could understand if you have a lot of questions about where I got that kind of money, and that's okay. I'll answer 'em." She dropped her eyes again, the old shame welling up for a moment. "But I figure it's time that money was put to a good use instead of burning a hole in my conscience like it has been doing." She met her father's eyes again. "Let me help, Dad. I owe you that much at least." Long seconds ticked by as they let the truth of that pass between them."
Finally David broke the silence.
"That's not the point, love," he said quietly. "The fact is, your mother and I have been doing a lot of thinking as well." He took a deep breath and expelled it in a long, pensive sigh as he looked around at the harsh, beautiful landscape. "This place has been home for us for a very long time, but we can't make it work anymore. And neither of us is getting any younger."
Jo looked at him quizzically. Where's he going with this, she wondered.
"I'm almost 62," he continued. He laughed at the look of surprise on Jo's face. "Come off it," he said. "You can't tell me I don't look a day over 70." He grinned.
She shook her head. "I just never really thought about it before," she said. "I don't think of you as being that ..." She hesitated.
"Old, love. The word is old." He patted her thigh again. "Well, that's the truth of it, and at some point I have to start thinking about how your mother and I are going to live when I'm too old to work this place." He looked at Jo. "And the truth of that is it's not too far away. And we don't have any savings to speak of. We've poured everything into this place for 40 years."
"That's why Cadie and I want to help," Jo said again.
David shook his head. "That's not going to work, Josie," he said. "There's more debt here than your average third-world nation, and no amount of cash is going to bring rain, or make sure that another drought doesn't come again in 10 years when we're even less able to survive it."
Jo looked puzzled. "So what's the answer?"
David sighed again and turned back to the landscape. Blood, sweat and tears I've poured into this place, he thought sadly. Bugger the cash. Blood, sweat and tears. But that's not enough any more. Maggie deserves better. So do I.
"It's time to sell up, Josie," he said softly, a faraway look in his eye.
"Sell up?" Cadie looked at Maggie incredulously. It had never occurred to her, nor Jo either she suspected, that leaving Coonyabby was an option for the Madisons. Maggie had said it matter-of-factly as they had begun preparing the evening meal. Almost as if it was as everyday as peeling the potatoes. Cadie stood dumbstruck, a knife in one hand and a half-denuded potato in the other. She had started this conversation with a view to making the suggestion that she and Jo help the station survive the drought, but Maggie had turned it on its ear. The blonde wondered briefly if David was doing the same to her partner. "Things are that bad?"
Maggie shrugged. "Not yet," she said. "But we're getting too old to fight this battle constantly, year in, year out."
"But that's not true," Cadie protested. "You're both so full of energy. Surely ..." She stopped at the tolerant look on her mother-in-law's face. "You guys have been thinking about this for a long time, huh?"
Maggie nodded. "Yes. Since the last time we had some decent rain. David said at the time that he didn't know when the next lot would come and that maybe it was time we started thinking about how we were going to live for the next 30 years." She finished peeling the potato she was working on and cut it deftly into quarters before dropping the pieces into the roasting pan where they snuggled against the leg of lamb that was on the menu for the evening. "We're at the point now where if we sell up we'll have enough to pay off all the debts and have a bit left over to set ourselves up. Then we can both settle in and do some of the other things we like to do when we get the chance."
Cadie tilted her head to one side, taking in all that Maggie was telling her. "It's not worth hanging on a bit longer?" she asked.
"No," Maggie said with a sigh as she looked out the back window over her beloved garden. "Now's the right time to sell. If we waited another season and no rain came we'd be beyond the point where we could make any profit at all by selling. It's now or never, really."
Cadie nodded, understanding that Maggie and David had made a considered decision. "It has to feel kind of weird though," she pondered. "Leaving after all this time."
Maggie looked at the petite blonde, liking her more with each passing minute. "More so for David than me," she said with a quiet smile. "He was born in that bedroom over there." She nodded in the direction of the room she and David slept in. "So was his father. So was Josie for that matter." She tucked the last of the potatoes into the pan and opened the oven door, bending down to slide the roast inside. "It was different for me," she continued as she straightened up. "I wasn't born to it like he was."
"It's still home, though," Cadie said softly, watching as the older woman moved around the kitchen.
"Yes," Maggie admitted. "But I'm not a sentimentalist like David. I'm more the wherever-I-lay-my-hat-that's-my-home kind of person." She filled the kettle with water and placed it on the stovetop. "But it was his idea to sell. I never would have suggested it. That's when I knew that it really was time to leave."
Cadie reached up into the cupboard above the counter, pulling down two coffee mugs and handing them to Maggie.
"I'm glad I got to come out here and see Coonyabby," she said. It made her a little sad to think this place would pass out of the family's hands. "I wish it didn't have to be the last time."
"Me too, love," Maggie said. Her voice cracked on the last word and Cadie moved closer, placing a gentle hand on the older woman's shoulder. Disconcerted, Maggie wiped away her tears with an impatient hand. "See, not a sentimental bone in my body," she laughed tearily.
Cadie laughed along with her, knowing that tomorrow's departure was going to be infinitely more emotional than she had expected it to be, for them all. I wonder how Jo-Jo is doing with all this?
"Where will you go?" Jo asked quietly. They were all seated around Maggie's dining room table, the family matriarch having decided that Jo and Cadie's last meal at Coonyabby should be a more formal affair. Hughie had joined them too, though he had stayed largely silent through the continuing discussion about the decision to sell the property.
It was the question Jo had been avoiding since her father had told her of his decision that afternoon. Asking it meant she had conceded defeat and was accepting her parents' judgment that life on the land was no longer a going concern. I hate the thought of them leaving, but it's their decision, not mine. I gave up any right to have a say in this a long, long time ago. She had even, at one point during dinner, offered to buy the property outright, keeping it in the family by hook or by crook. But her father had shaken his head and said no, again.
"Josie, buying the land doesn't solve the problem," he had said. "Keeping the stock fed and healthy, maintaining the equipment, staying ahead of the weather those are the things that suck the money away. Look, I appreciate the offer, believe me, but all you would be doing is saddling yourselves with a lifetime of debt. For every good year, you'll have three bad ones that will bleed you dry. And I'm not going to let you do that."
It had been David's last word on the subject and Jo had lapsed into silence for a while, letting Cadie and Maggie drive the conversation while she sorted through her emotions. In a way it was weird how she felt so strongly about wanting to keep Coonyabby in the family. After all, I couldn't wait to leave it when I was 17, she had thought glumly. And it's not like I gave much thought to ever coming back to it. But she was willing to admit to herself that those had been bad decisions on her part. The last three weeks out here have been great. I've really enjoyed rediscovering the place. A piece of self-realization floated to the front of her consciousness. Maybe that's it. Maybe I'm just pissed off that I don't get to indulge myself with it for any longer.
That's when she accepted that her parents' decision was made and that it was for the best.
She shook herself back into the conversation. "So, where will you go?"
Maggie took another sip of port and put her glass down. "Well, we haven't really settled on that yet, to be honest," she replied, looking at her husband. They'd talked around a few ideas, to be sure, but having Jo and Cadie in their lives for the last three weeks had given them one or two more suggestions.
"Sydney?" Jo asked, hoping like hell that wasn't going to be the answer. She loathed the big city and didn't relish the thought of having to visit it on anything like a regular basis.
"No fear," David replied quickly. "Can't stand the place. I'd rather crawl under a rock and die."
Jo sniggered, understanding her father's sentiments exactly, but for completely different reasons. "So, what's the plan, then?"
The two elder Madisons looked at each other for a few seconds, obviously having an unspoken conversation, until finally David shrugged his shoulders. Maggie laughed quietly. "Up to me then, I guess," she murmured. She looked her daughter in the eye. "I want you to answer this question honestly, okay? Because we know that it's only been a few weeks and the last thing we want to do is make you feel ... well, crowded, I guess."
Cadie could immediately see where this was going and the thought, frankly, delighted her. She reached out with her right hand and squeezed Jo's knee, hoping that her partner would see things the same way. Maggie hesitated, suddenly uncertain about how her wayward daughter would receive their suggestion.
"Come on, Mum, spit it out," Jo urged. She liked the feel of Cadie's gentle grip on her leg, though she had no clue why the blonde was seeking to reassure her.
"Okay, well. How would you feel about your Dad and me moving up to the Whitsundays?" The words spilled out in a hurry as Maggie's eagerness to see Jo's reaction took over.
Elegant dark brows rose quickly as Jo absorbed that piece of news. "Really?" she finally blurted, the beginnings of a 1000-watt grin touching the corners of her mouth. Good girl, Cadie thought happily. I knew you'd like this idea. "Mum, I think that's a fantastic idea." Jo turned to her father who was smiling behind his cup of coffee. "You're gonna love it up there, Dad, honestly," she enthused.
David took another mouthful of coffee before putting his mug down and grinning at his daughter. "We've had our eye on a five-acre lot somewhere out the back of Airlie Beach," he explained. "Some place called Cannon Valley."
"Yes!" Jo exclaimed. "It's inland, between Airlie and Proserpine," she replied, naming the small sugar cane-growing community an hour's drive west of her home. "Are you going to farm it?"
Maggie chuckled. "We're not sure yet, sweetheart," she said. "We really only started thinking about it seriously a week ago. When it became obvious that you didn't find your old parental units too obnoxious." She smiled winningly.
"Oh, stop it," Jo scoffed. She turned to look at Cadie, unsurprised to see green eyes sparkling back it her in obvious happiness. "Good idea, huh?"
"Oh yeah," Cadie affirmed. She looked over at Hughie, who was sitting silently at the opposite corner of the table. He seemed unconcerned about the recent developments going on around him. But then he usually does take things in his stride, she realized. "What about you, Hughie?" the American asked. "What are you going to do?"
The others fell silent, realizing that the young Aborigine's life was likely to change as much, if not more, than anyone's. It was the one thing that had troubled Maggie the most about their decision.
"Not sure, Miss," Hughie said, flashing the blonde a sunny smile. "Just go where there's work, I reckon."
"You know you can come with us," Maggie said quietly. She had tried to have this very conversation with Hughie a few days' earlier, but he'd steadfastly refused to give it much thought, let alone come to any firm decision. It shouldn't have surprised her, as that had always been his nature, just to go with the flow, but it hadn't helped ease her anxiety.
"I know," he answered.
Jo's mind was running at about a thousand miles an hour. "Have you ever seen the ocean, Hughie?" she asked, the germ of an idea forming.
He shook his shaggy head slowly from side to side. "No, Miss Josie. Don't reckon I know what that much water could look like."
Jo grinned back at him. "Would you like to see it?" A look of wonder came over Hughie's wide open face. He nodded mutely. "So, why don't you stick with Mum and Dad and come and work for me on the boats, when they don't need you on their land?"
"Oh, Jo-Jo, that's a great idea," Cadie exclaimed. "Hughie, you'll love it up there, I promise."
"I reckon I might like that," he said.
"Sounds like a plan to me," Jo replied firmly. She looked at her father. "So, how do you think you might like cane farming, Dad?" She grinned.
"Oh, I don't think I'll be taking it too seriously, Josie," he answered. "My days of worrying about yields and irrigation and all that are coming to an end, thankfully. It'll be more of a hobby farm, if anything, and I expect Hughie will be able to do a lot of it, eh, mate?" He nodded at Hughie and received a confirming grin in return.
"You don't really hate it that much, do you?" Cadie asked, not believing for one moment that the elder Madison felt anything other than a passion for the land.
"I don't hate it all," he admitted. "I'm just ready to take things easy. I reckon we've earned it." He looked at Maggie and smiled when she tucked her hand into his weather-beaten one under the table. "Don't you think?"
"I think," his wife agreed.
"Cadie." Jo nudged her deeply-sleeping partner. It was still dark and Jo wanted to get up and out of the house before the sun came up. "Cadie, darling, wake up." She nudged a little more insistently.
"Aww, just 10 more minutes, Mom, and then I'll get up, I promise," the American mumbled, even as she nuzzled deeper into Jo's arms. The dark-haired woman smiled affectionately at the blonde.
She really is utterly gorgeous, Jo acknowledged. Long, blonde eyelashes fluttered and, even in the gloom, Jo could make out the green of Cadie's irises as she blinked awake. "Good morning, sweetie," she whispered.
"Morning?" Cadie grumbled sleepily. "Jo-Jo, it's still dark. Why are we awake?"
"I thought you might like to watch our last sunrise at Coonyabby," Jo replied quietly.
Tch, Arcadia, when are you going to learn that this place means more to her than she's ever going to let on, Cadie chastised herself. She's about to say goodbye to her home. Again. "Yes, love," she said aloud, pushing herself up on an elbow and leaning in to kiss Jo softly. "I really want to see the sunrise."
Jo grinned up at her. "I love you, y'know."
Cadie chuckled softly and patted her lover's stomach affectionately. "I know. So, come on, lazybones, where are we going?"
"Not far," Jo replied as she pulled aside the sheet and clambered out of bed. "In fact ..." She grabbed the flashlight from the bedside table and walked over to the desk on the other side of the room. Flicking on the beam, she illuminated the ceiling above the desk, revealing a small panel that obviously led to the roof space.
"Ahhah," said Cadie. "Why do I get the feeling we're about to make use of a childhood haunt?"
Jo waggled an elegant eyebrow at her. "Because you know me too well?" She looked at Cadie's naked form. "Gorgeous as you are in the flesh, my love, you're gonna need to put something on. It's gonna be cool out there."
Together they hastily pulled on some clothes, Cadie opting for a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt, while Jo reached for her sweatpants and a t-shirt.
"Ready?" she asked a couple of minutes later.
"Lead on, MacDuff," Cadie replied.
Jo climbed up onto the desk and reached up, nudging the panel aside. Dust sprinkled down on her and she blinked and shook her head. "Ugh. S'been a while since anyone's shifted this," she muttered. "Hand me the torch, love?" She waited until Cadie placed the flashlight in her hand before she pushed the panel the rest of the way. "Hopefully there's nothing living up here."
"Like what?" Cadie asked as she watched her partner readying to hoist herself up into the roof.
"Possums, maybe," Jo replied. She balanced the flashlight on the edge of the ceiling, the light bouncing eerily off the inside of the roof. "Snakes." Her hands found a purchase and she sprang up, using her upper body strength to lever herself up and through the opening. Cadie watched as Jo's long legs slithered up and disappeared from view momentarily. There was much scrabbling and scraping before Jo's face reappeared in the opening. "All clear," she said, smiling down at the American.
Cadie climbed onto the desk and looked up. "Don't think I'm tall enough to do your trick, sweetheart," she said ruefully.
"That's why the universe provided you with me, darling," Jo replied cheekily. She reached down with one long arm. "Come on, shortie. Between the two of us we should be able to get you up here."
A few dusty, scrambling minutes later they were up on the roof. Jo settled herself on the sloping corrugated iron, and braced her feet firmly as she pulled Cadie down till she was sitting between the skipper's legs.
"Comfortable?" Jo asked, amused by Cadie's squirming.
The American snuggled back against her taller partner's shoulder and sighed contentedly. "I am now," she said softly, turning her head and kissing Jo just under the line of her jaw. "This was a good idea, Jo-Jo. Though I'm not even going to try and understand why your roof has a removable panel in it."
Jo grinned. "When I was about 12, Mum decided she wanted to put a sunroof in, in the bathroom. They got half the work done and then she changed her mind." She chuckled throatily. "Let's just say I saw an opportunity for some fun and found a way to bypass the repairs."
Cadie laughed softly. "I wish I'd known you then," she said. "I bet we would have had some fun." Jo smiled and nodded. "Doesn't it leak when it rains?" Jo raised an amused eyebrow.
"Darling, we've been here three weeks. Have you seen one cloud?"
"Hmmm, good point."
"Mhmm." Jo looked away to the east, where a thin line of pinks and oranges was beginning to emerge along the horizon, outlining the stark silhouettes of the trees. Somewhere, a lone, early-rising kookaburra let loose with a string of warbling laughs.
"S'beautiful," Cadie whispered. She placed her hands on Jo's thighs, feeling the warmth through the fabric of her sweatpants. "You're going to miss this place, aren't you?"
There was a pause as Jo took it all in. "Silly, isn't it?" she finally replied, sighing deeply. "I didn't miss it enough to come back here for 15 years. Now I've only been here five minutes and I hate the fact I'm going to lose it again."
Cadie patted her thighs softly. "Not silly at all, love," she answered. "I've only been here five minutes as well, and I'm certainly going to miss it." She tilted her head back and watched Jo's profile, its distinctive angles and unique beauty turned golden by the rising sun. Gorgeous. "I like the thought of your parents coming north, though," she said aloud. "It's going to be great to have them close by."
Jo grunted noncommittally, but the tiny smile said plenty and Cadie chuckled softly.
"Dad said they would bring the horses and dogs with them, so that's good," Jo said. "I didn't like the idea of selling them off with the sheep and cattle."
"Mhmm, I know." The rim of the sun broke above the horizon's haze and both women stared silently at the lightening sky for a few moments of contentment. "Thank you for bringing me here, Jo-Jo," Cadie whispered.
"My pleasure, love."