Hughie sat cross-legged on the floor of the lambing shed where the small group of orphaned lambs was being housed until they were weaned and strong enough to return to the paddock. The rangy young man had his long legs tucked under him as he cradled one tiny creature in the crook of his elbow. In his other hand he held a baby’s bottle filled to the brim with warm formula. The lamb struggled a little until Hughie could get the teat into its mouth. The flood of nourishment quieted the lamb as it hungrily sucked the liquid down.
The peace didn’t last long, however, as the wooden door of the shed slammed open. Jack Collingwood stalked in, muttering under his breath. Hughie had seen the man’s temper often enough to know to keep silent and try to stay invisible.
“Those fuckin’ bitches. Who do they think they are?” Collingwood spat. Hughie shifted backwards, resting his back against the wall to clear space for the angry foreman’s temper tantrum. “Been here five fuckin’ minutes and already telling a bloke what to do.”
Hughie watched Collingwood warily, keeping his opinions to himself. He hadn’t seen what had gotten the older man so riled, but he knew enough to realize it must have been Miss Josie and her friend who had caused the commotion. He wouldn’t call the Missus that word, that's for sure, he thought to himself.
A glance down at the lamb told him the animal had settled back into suckling and Hughie turned his attention back to Collingwood. It had been just yesterday that the foreman had clipped him across the face, leaving a tender lump under Hughie's left eye, and he wasn’t about to let the bad-tempered bastard out of his sight. Not when he's in this kind of mood. Hughie had lived in a white man’s world long enough to know that the Madisons were good people. It was worth putting up with the Collingwoods of the world to stay with them. Besides, he owed them.
Collingwood stumped over to the styrofoam cooler filled with iced water that Hughie had brought back in from the paddock. Roughly he yanked off the lid, carelessly splashing the precious fluid into a cup and over the upturned barrel on which the cooler rested.
“Not gonna let them get away with that bullshit,” he muttered after slaking his thirst, rotating the cup in his fingers as he considered his next move.
The lamb drained the last of the formula from the bottle and Hughie shifted, pushing himself up to his feet. Collingwood swung around on him, as if noticing him for the first time.
“What are you up to, blackie?" he snarled.
Hughie ignored the racial epithet. He’d heard it so many times in his short, impoverished life it was hardly worth thinking about. He tried not to look like Jack’s question was the stupidest inquiry in the world, given he was holding a lamb in one arm and a feeding bottle in the other.
“Just feeding the orphans, boss,” he murmured as he bent over the pen's rail and gently placed the sleepy lamb back on the ground. It tottered over to one of its mates and flopped down into a drowsy pile.
“You'd better keep your mouth shut, boy, or I'll kick your arse from here to breakfast,” Collingwood threatened.
“I don't know nothin', boss,” Hughie replied.
“That's right, you don't. And just you make sure you keep it that way.” Collingwood threw his empty cup at the younger man. Hughie caught it effortlessly, ignoring the flying drops of cold water that splashed over him. Gentle brown eyes watched the foreman leave again.
“That white fella's got a hard fall comin',” Hughie muttered to the lambs. “Bad time comin' for him, I reckon.”
The pile of dozing lambs didn't disagree.
David Madison swung the ATV into the shed and killed the engine. It was late afternoon and he knew he was just a few minutes away from being face to face with his daughter again. His stomach was in knots – butterflies didn’t even come close to describing the sensation.
I have no idea what's going to happen when I see her, he acknowledged to himself. I just don't want a scene, that's all. Not in front of strangers. Not in front of the men. Jesus, not in front of anyone.
He climbed off the four-wheeler and lifted his knapsack over his shoulder. He was sweaty and covered in dust, not to mention the scraped knuckles that were par for the course when he was working around the machines. He hung the ATV's keys on a nail near the door of the shed and stepped out into the late afternoon sun. As always, the sight of the homestead touched something deep in him. The impending sunset was casting a golden glow over the white house, and lent the farm buildings and red earth an oil painting quality that never ceased to intrigue him. For a few seconds David stood and took it all in. The deep crow's feet at the corners of his grey eyes crinkled as he smiled slightly.
This is home, he told himself. Always has been. Always will be. He scuffed his boots against a wooden fence paling, knocking the excess dust off his trousers. Even if I can't be here, this'll always be home. His father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather had worked this land. It's never made us rich, he thought. But it's never broken us either.
Until now, maybe.
He sighed deeply, consigning the never-ending problem of how to squeeze money from his land into the darker recesses of his mind. More immediate things to worry about right now, he realized. Wearily he trudged towards the homestead, steeling himself for … for God only knows what.
Jo could feel the tension winding tighter and tighter inside her gut as the afternoon began to slip into evening. The time since Cadie’s confrontation with Jack Collingwood had passed very pleasantly. They had been helping her mother, laughing and chatting as they had prepared the last meal of the day.
Mum’s been just great, Jo thought as she ran a tea-towel over the pan she had just washed. I didn’t give her enough credit. She lowered the pan rack that was suspended from the ceiling and hung the pot back on its hook. This trip was definitely a good idea, she thought for the first time since she and Cadie had first called her mother. God, was it only 10 days ago? Jo shook her head in wonder. Why did I wait so long? She looked across the kitchen to where her mother and Cadie were laughing over some reminiscence of Jo’s childhood. The blonde looked happy and comfortable. That’s why, Jo acknowledged, affection for her partner warming her nervous stomach as she hoisted the rack back up to the ceiling. I needed that support behind me.
Cadie laughed at something Maggie told her and caught Jo’s eye, bringing her back to the moment.
“You rode an emu?” Cadie asked, her eyes wide and incredulous. Jo felt herself flushing.
“Well … I mean … um, yes,” she admitted, grinning sheepishly. “The really hard part was catching him in the first place.”
“How did you manage that, Josie?” Maggie wondered. “You never did explain it to me.”
Jo’s eyes narrowed. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, mother?”
“Thoroughly,” Maggie confirmed, crossing her arms and leaning back against the counter as she waited for her squirming daughter’s reply. She smiled, knowing that despite the blush, Jo was becoming more and more comfortable with being home. And that’s a very good thing.
“I don’t remember how we caught it,” Jo dissembled. “Phil was with me,” she explained to Cadie.
“You had Phil wave his arms in front of it, and you lassoed it with a bit of old rope,” came a deep voice from the hallway.
Jo’s heart stopped, then tripped over itself to catch up, sucking the breath out of her in a rush. She turned her head and was met by a cool grey gaze that faltered and flicked away after a couple of seconds.
Maggie held her breath. Beside her Cadie did the same.
Jo was experiencing a weird sense of disorientation. The man standing in the doorway was her father, she knew. Those eyes couldn’t belong to anyone else. But he was a far cry from the tall, strong man who had dominated her childhood memories for so long.
He’s gotten so old, she thought sadly, taking in the stooped set of the shoulders, the almost-white at the temples and the deep sunbronzed wrinkles that lined his face. Did I do that?
My God, she’s the image of her mother at the same age, David realized. Beautiful. A pang of something like regret made him wince. All those years I could’ve known her, gone.
“H-hello, Dad,” Jo husked.
“Hello, Josie,” he replied, meeting her eyes briefly before they swung away again, taking in Cadie’s presence. Hesitantly, Jo stepped towards him, but stopped when he quickly moved away.
“I’m, uh, just going to get washed up for supper,” he muttered. With a brief nod of acknowledgement he turned away and disappeared back down the corridor.
Jo turned anxious eyes on her mother. Maggie raised her hands in a calming gesture.
“It’s okay, love,” she said. “You’ve got to give him a bit of time.”
Jo nodded then hung her head, disconcerted to find tears filling her eyes. She buried her hands in her pockets, at a loss to know how to feel or what to do.
Cadie let out the breath she had been holding and walked over to her partner. Carefully she slid her arms around the taller woman’s waist and ducked her head to try and meet Jo’s eyes. She found them squeezed shut and the slightest hint of a tear glistening on the long, black lashes. Awwwwww.
“C’mon baby,” she murmured, coaxing Jo into relaxing a little in her arms. Gradually Jo did, until her cheek rested against Cadie’s temple. “That wasn’t so bad Jo-Jo,” the blonde soothed. “You just took each other by surprise that’s all. Your mom’s right. It’s gonna be okay.”
Jo sniffled slightly. “You think?”
“Mhmmmm. Now, come on. He’ll be back soon.” Cadie was vaguely aware of Maggie walking out of the kitchen in the general direction of the bathroom. “And I think you freaked him out as much as he did you.”
Jo chuckled tearily. “Yeah, I guess I did, huh?”
Maggie closed the bathroom door, and leaned back against it. The room was filled with steam from David’s shower and she could just see his wiry form behind the glass door of the cubicle. Her husband was leaning forward, hands on the wall, letting the hot water pound on the back of his neck.
“You all right, love?” she asked.
David snorted, but stood up, rubbing his face with one hand.
“Yeah, darl, I’m fine,” he muttered. “Glad that was you coming in. Anybody else and it would’ve killed me.”
Maggie chuckled softly and pushed herself upright. She walked over to the towel rail and lifted the large fluffy towel off, unfolding it. David opened the door to the shower cubicle and stepped towards her, letting his wife wrap the soft material around his waist and tucking it in. Maggie leaned a little further forward and kissed him lightly.
“You should be used to me walking in on you, by now,” she said quietly, patting him on the chest, her fingers grazing the long, thin scar that ran the length of his breastbone.
“Uh-huh.” David watched his wife as she walked slowly around the bathroom gathering her thoughts. He knew her well enough to know that if he kept quiet and let her think, she’d soon enough be telling him what was what.
“You know your daughter is terrified, don’t you?” she eventually said. David stopped drying his hair and stared at Maggie. “And don’t stand there and tell me you’re not a little scared as well, David Madison.” She frowned at him, trying to find the words for what she was feeling.
“I can’t just pretend everything is okay, Maggie,” he replied gruffly.
“It could be if we let it be,” she retorted. “What’s past is past.”
David pointed in the general direction of the kitchen. “And if you haven’t noticed, wife, there’s another person out there. Another woman. Our daughter is … she’s …” Maggie stepped forward, silencing his frustration with one touch of her hand.
“Is that really what’s bothering you, David?” she asked, gazing into grey eyes that had never changed in all the years she’d known him.
“It doesn’t help,” he replied.
She smiled at him. “Just be around them for a while, love. You’ll find out what I’ve found out in just one afternoon.”
“And what’s that?”
“You’ll see, if you just let yourself look.” She patted his chest again. “Anyway, believe it or not, that’s not actually why I came in to see you.” His eyebrow lifted inquiringly. Maggie sighed and stepped away, allowing him to finish drying off. “It’s Jack.”
“Ah.” David didn’t really want to hear this. Maggie had been negative about the foreman from the moment he’d stepped onto the property. But the man was a good worker and they were few and far between.
“Cadie caught him kicking one of the dogs today,” Maggie went on. “And Hughie’s got a mouse the size of an egg under his eye.”
That brought David up short.
“I’ll deal with it,” he said bluntly.
Maggie knew enough to know that was all the conversation she was going to get on that subject. She also knew that when her husband said he would deal with something, it would be dealt with.
“Thank you.” She watched him pulling on clean clothes. “Don’t forget your tablets, love,” she reminded him as she headed out the door.
Much to Jo's relief, Maggie and Cadie kept up an almost endless stream of cheerful conversation through dinner. Her mother was full of eager questions for the American, curious about her family background and home town of Madison, Wisconsin. Maggie had decided to keep dinner to just the four of them, taking out covered plates to Hughie and Jack in the cottage. Jo kept one ear on the chatter while she watched her father.
The taciturn man concentrated hard on his plate of roast beef and vegetables. She found her eyes drawn, as they always had been, to his hands. They were large, weather-beaten mitts, with broad, flat fingers and gnarled knuckles, sporting a few fresh grazes. Jo looked down at her own hands and the slowly-healing scrapes from her own brush with the Beowulf's engine barely a week ago. She flexed her hand, curling and uncurling a fist.
Guess we have some things in common, she thought.
There was a pause in the talk while Maggie and Cadie paused long enough to eat.
“Got your own business going, eh?” David said out of the blue. He held his knife and fork casually as his forearms rested on the table. His grey eyes locked on to hers briefly.
“Um, yeah,” Jo replied. “Got a couple of yachts running charters pretty much all year round these days.”
He nodded. “Making money for you?”
Jo looked at him. He'd gone back to sawing at his meat.
“So far, so good,” she answered, unconsciously matching his blunt tone. “I've only been the owner a month or so, so it's a case of suck it and see.” She felt Cadie's hand squeeze her thigh gently in reassurance.
“Jo's got some ideas for expanding though, don't you?" the blonde said proudly.
“Yeah, I do – maybe another boat.”
David flicked a look at her again.
“Tricky thing, expansion,” he said gruffly. “Can't do it too soon.”
Jo nodded, agreeing with him. “Well, I don't have any immediate ideas to go spending a lot of money,” she said. “We've got a pretty busy winter season coming up. We'll get through that and then see what the off-season looks like before we make any decisions.”
David chewed thoughtfully. “Good business to be in these days,” he said. “Tourism.”
Jo caught her mother's eye, not missing the gleam. Guess she’s just pleased we’re actually having a conversation, Jo thought. “Yeah it's certainly taking off up there,” she replied out loud. “And as long as we can keep giving better service than our competitors, we should do all right.”
Cadie gave her partner's leg another pat before withdrawing her hand and continuing with her meal.
“This beef is lovely and tender, Maggie,” she said.
“Thank you,” Jo's mother replied. “It was one of our own beasts.”
Of course it was, Cadie thought wryly, suddenly reminded that she was at the sharp end of the food chain. It’s not like they were going to trot down to the supermarket and buy a frozen roast. Why do that when you can just go out and slaughter your own? For some reason the mouthful she’d just bitten off became a little harder to swallow at that thought.
Maggie read the American's mind and she smiled kindly.
“Don’t worry, I promise I won't subject you to anything too bloodthirsty,” she said, the twinkle in her eye bringing a grin to Cadie's face.
“Thanks,” the blonde replied. “I'm not used to my food having a face.”
David snorted. “You're out in the real world now,” he muttered.
“You're right,” Cadie agreed, not really knowing whether the older man was criticizing her or not. She hadn't been able to get much of a sense of how he felt about her. So far he'd barely given her a glance.
Jo came to the rescue.
“What are your plans tomorrow, Dad?" she asked. “And whatever they are, can we tag along?”
David cleaned off his plate with a slice of bread, resting his knife and fork down while he munched at the gravy-soaked morsel.
“One of the bores at the top end needs servicing,” he said. “Thought I'd head up there with Hughie and clean it out.”
Jo turned to Cadie and smiled at her partner.
“You up for that?” she asked.
Cadie grinned. “You bet,” she replied enthusiastically.
“Means getting up before dawn,” David muttered.
“No problem,” Cadie replied with a smile. “We're usually up pretty early most mornings anyway.”
Maggie raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“My daughter makes a habit of waking up early? My daughter, who could barely be rousted out of bed before midday on the weekends?” She laughed. “The times really have changed.”
“You'd be surprised,” Cadie said, trying not to sound like she was rushing to her partner's defense. “She's out there most mornings, meditating with the sunrise.”
That caught David's attention, she noticed, even as she was aware of the fetching blush coloring Jo's cheeks.
“Cadie ...” Jo began to hush her.
“Meditating?” David exclaimed, for once holding his daughter's gaze for more than a passing second. “Don't tell me you've turned into one of those hairy-legs-and-sandals types more worried about saving the whales than making a living?”
Oooo, guess I hit a raw nerve, Cadie thought.
Jo was silent for a few seconds, unsurprised at her father's vehement response to any suggestion of anything approaching spiritual or intangible.
“It's not that, Dad,” she answered quietly. “Don't worry, I'm not about to start telling you you should be putting pink ribbons on the ’roos instead of shooting them. Meditating's just what I do to relax myself before the day starts.” She decided not to try and explain the Buddhist philosophies that had found a place in her spiritual values lately. “It's great.” She grinned cheekily at her parent. “You should try it one day.” As if.
David snorted and noisily dropped his knife and fork onto his plate. He stood up and carried his utensils over to the sink, where he dropped them in to the water with a splash.
“No thanks,” he muttered. “Is there any pudding, love?” he asked his wife.
Grateful for a chance to ease a little of the steadily growing tension, Maggie jumped to her feet and headed for the refrigerator.
“There sure is,” she answered. “Complete with birthday candles, what's more.”
Jo groaned. “Aw, Mum, you didn't have to do that.”
“Oh hush.” Maggie lifted the enormous chocolate cake off the fridge shelf and placed it in the middle of the table. She fished a box of matches from her pocket and struck one, lighting the six candles with it.
“Six?” asked Cadie.
“Yes,” Jo murmured. “Three long ones for each decade, and three short ones for each extra year.” She looked up at her mother and caught Maggie with the glimmer of a tear in her eye. “I remember.”
David returned to his seat. “Sorry we couldn't actually say it on the day, Josie,” he said, using his daughter's pet name for the first time since they had arrived. “Happy birthday.”
“Thanks Dad.” Jo was disconcerted to hear her voice cracking, but then it had been a very long time since she’s heard her father talking to her with any affection in his tone. Wow.
Cadie pulled off her t-shirt and extended the movement into a long, luxurious stretch that popped her spine back into place and tugged at muscles that felt like they hadn’t rested in days.
“Ugh,” she winced, relaxing back into her normal posture. Cadie half-expected a teasing zinger from her partner, but Jo was silently pensive, lying on her back on her childhood bed. The blonde dropped her t-shirt on the chair and rubbed her face wearily. It’s been a very long day, she thought. She watched Jo cover her eyes with her right arm, the exhaustion evident in every angle of her body.
Cadie pulled on the old baseball shirt she wore on the rare occasions she and Jo didn’t sleep nude. She slowly walked to the bedside and leaned one knee on the edge of the narrow mattress. It’s gonna be a tight squeeze, she thought, barely concealing the small smile that recognition provoked. Pity it’s so hot, but I’m sure we’ll survive. The air was still and full of dry heat even now, four hours after sunset.
Cadie slid onto the bed, lying on her side with her head propped on her hand, just watching Jo.
“It’s been a day, huh?” she murmured.
Jo snorted quietly. “Oh yeah,” she whispered hoarsely.
“You okay sweetheart?” Cadie reached out and slid her hand under Jo’s t-shirt, gently caressing the muscular yet velvety stomach beneath. She’s wound up tight, still, she realized, feeling the abs twitch and contract at her touch.
“I’m whipped,” Jo replied. “Inside and out.”
The rest of the evening had passed relatively uneventfully, although David had lapsed back into his apparently usual taciturn manner once the birthday celebrations were over.
Maybe that's just the way he is, Cadie pondered. She looked down at Jo who had dropped her arm and was staring up at the ceiling, lost in her own thoughts. Before she could open her mouth to ask the question, Jo piped up.
“Don't take Dad's grumpiness personally,” she said. “He's like that with everyone when he first meets them. I used to think he was just rude, but I think I've figured out he's shy.”
Cadie cocked an eyebrow at her lover.
“How did you know I was thinking about that?” she asked.
Jo smiled wearily.
“You looked like you were fretting on something, and given how well you're already getting on with Mum, I figured it had to be Dad who was bothering you.”
Cadie leaned down and gently kissed the older woman.
“Clever girl,” she murmured against the soft lips. “He's bothering you too, I think.”
Jo nodded slowly.
“To be honest, they both are. Did you notice? Not one question about my life before I moved to the Whitsundays. They're either both pathologically non-curious, or that shit-scared of what they might find out.”
Cadie thought about that. Both options were possible she supposed. Though what she had already seen of Maggie told her the woman was as curious about the world as her daughter. But there was a third option Jo hadn't considered, she was sure.
“Could be they just don't need to know, love,” she suggested. She let go of her partner long enough to reach up to the wall control for the ceiling fan, turning the rickety old appliance up a notch. Then she slid under the thin top sheet.
Jo turned onto her side, gazing down at her lover.
“You really think that's possible?” she asked quietly. “I mean, if I was them, I'd be desperate to know.”
Cadie brushed fingertips across Jo's cheek, marveling at the high planes and angles that somehow combined to create a beautiful face.
“Would you really, though?” the blonde replied. “I mean, think about it. If your daughter had gone away a child and come back a woman who was to all intents and purposes happy and successful, would it really matter to you how she'd gotten there?”
“It would matter if I thought she'd got there by being a criminal, by doing wrong things,” Jo persisted stubbornly.
“Honey, you're biased.” Cadie smiled at Jo's confused expression. “You know those things about yourself and so it colors your perception of how you would react in their position.”
Jo rolled over on to her back again. “I'm too tired to be thinking such deep and convoluted thoughts,” she grumbled.
Cadie chuckled, knowing that was as close to a concession as she was likely to get. “It's day one, sweetheart,” she said, snuggling into the crook of Jo's arm and throwing her leg over the taller woman's hip. “I'm sure they'll come up with a few curly questions over the next couple of weeks.”
Jo didn't reply and Cadie glanced up into a face that was already relaxed into deep sleep.
“Well, goodnight to you too, darlin',” she whispered.
“Jack!” David Madison walked towards the machinery shed, where his foreman and Hughie were readying the ute and two ATVs for the day's work in the top paddock. It wasn't yet dawn and the air was crisply cool with a light dew. It was far and away David's favorite time of the day.
Collingwood and Hughie looked up as their boss stalked towards them with the rolling gait characteristic of a man who had spent the greater part of his life in the saddle. Coonyabby had all the modern conveniences of a 21st century farm, but given a choice David would much rather be on horseback. As stations got bigger in an effort to stay economically viable, motorized transport was the only real option.
“Mornin' boss,” Collingwood said with mock cheerfulness. It didn't take a genius to interpret the look on Madison's face. Those bitches have been yappin’ in his ear, that’s for certain, he thought sourly.
“Hughie, do me a favor, mate, and go pick up the packed lunches from Maggie. She’s in the kitchen. Give me and Jack a minute.” David smiled tightly at the young man, who tugged the brim of his Akubra in acknowledgement.
“No worries, boss,” he answered quietly before slipping out of the barn. David turned back to Collingwood who was shuffling from foot to foot.
“Not gonna beat around the bush, Jack. You’re a good worker and I appreciate that. But I don’t like you as a man.” He pinned the foreman with a steely grey gaze until Collingwood’s muddy brown eyes dropped to his boots. “I hear, or see, one more sign that you’ve raised a hand, or a boot, to Hughie or any of the animals, I’ll sack your arse and kick it from here to Wilcannia. You hearing me?”
Jack scowled at him, the flush of anger starkly evident on his otherwise pale and pinched face.
“Someone’s been telling you tales, boss,” he growled.
“Are you calling my wife and my daughter liars?” David barked, his patience just about worn thin even after this briefest of confrontations. Jack had the good sense to say nothing. “I think you should just shut your mouth, keep your fists and feet to yourself and consider yourself warned.” David cocked his head to one side, challenging the man to take him on again. “You hearing me now, Jack?”
Collingwood spared him one more filthy look before bowing his head again.
“I hear you, boss.”
Maggie approached the closed door to her daughter's bedroom with a large degree of trepidation. The sun wasn't up yet, but she knew David would be champing at the bit to get moving and would have little patience if the two women dallied. She balanced the tray loaded with two plates piled high with bacon, fried eggs and toast in one hand as she raised her fist to knock on the door. Instead she found herself biting her lip as she hesitated before disturbing the occupants.
What if they're ...? she pondered. “Tch, come on Maggie, it's 4.30 in the morning. After the day they had yesterday it would be a miracle if they were awake, let alone doing anything else,” she chastised herself quietly. Still the persistent voice in her head nagged away at her. It's a small bed. They're still going to be ... in close contact.
“What are you, Maggie? A mother or a mouse?” With one deep breath she took her courage in both hands and knocked softly. Leaning forward she strained to hear any response but there was only silence. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she muttered as she slowly turned the doorknob and stepped into the darkened room.
As she had expected from the silence that greeted her knock, both women were deeply asleep. They were wrapped around each like sleepy puppies, tangled and contented. Maggie slid the tray of hot food on to the desk which ran along one wall of the crowded room. She turned back to the sleeping women and leaned against the desktop's edge, just watching them.
Cadie was on her side, facing Maggie, and Jo was spooned up behind her, arms thrown around the smaller woman and one leg hooked over the blonde's thigh. They had kicked off the thin top sheet at some point during the night. Maggie had expected the sight of the two lovers to bother her on some level. Instead she found herself smiling at them, warmed by the deep connection between them, obvious even in slumber.
Maybe I should get David in here to have a look before they wake up, she thought to herself. If he can't see the innate goodness in this love just by looking at it, then he's more blind than I think. She swept her eyes down the long length of her daughter's bare legs, and the slightly suggestive way Cadie's t-shirt had twisted and ridden up during the night. Then again, why give him another heart attack.
Her eyes ranged back up the two bodies lying in front of her until her gaze was met by a sleepy pair of blinking green eyes.
“Good morning,” Maggie said hesitantly as she pushed herself upright. “I’m sorry, Cadie, I didn’t mean to startle you. I did knock, but you were both out to it.”
Cadie lifted a hand and rubbed her face blearily. “S’okay,” she murmured. “I guess it’s time to get up, huh?” She yawned.
“If you want to catch David before he heads out into the great brown yonder, yes,” Maggie replied. “I’ve put some breakfast together for you both.”
“Mmmmmm, I can smell it. Thanks.” She smiled up at her mother-in-law, wondering how she was dealing with the sight of her daughter wrapped half-naked around another woman. “I guess that means rousting Miss Coma 2003, huh?”
“I’m awake,” came the muffled rumble behind Cadie’s right shoulder, where Jo’s face was snuggled. “I’m just too embarrassed to open my eyes and face a parental unit in this position.”
Cadie raised an eyebrow, meeting her mother-in-law's amused look. She could feel the heat of Jo's blush between her shoulder blades and she gently patted her partner's hands. They twitched slightly against Cadie's belly in reply.
“If I can deal with it, Josie-love, so can you,” Maggie pointed out.
Jo groaned and slowly rolled away from her warm nest tucked in behind her smaller partner. “Okay, okay,” she muttered.
“I'll leave you two to your breakfast,” Maggie said diplomatically, heading back to the door. “But don't be too long about it or your father will be away without you.” With that she exited, leaving the two scantily-clad women blinking at each other in the dim light of pre-dawn.
“Your mom is so cool,” Cadie finally decided. A muffled groan was all the response she got as Jo slumped back onto the pillow. Cadie laughed. “Come on, Stretch,” she said, patting her lover's long, naked thigh. “Let's get the day started or we'll never live it down.”
Half an hour and several rashers of bacon later, the pair walked out of the house and into the cool dawn air, beating a path to the machinery shed. Jo could see Jack Collingwood and another man working on the engine of one of the ATVs. Something about the lean figure struck her as familiar. And, then again ...
“Wow, that must be Hughie,” she said wonderingly as Cadie came up by her elbow.
“Who's Hughie?” the blonde asked, adjusting the straps of the small backpack she carried. Maggie had loaded it up with sandwiches, drinks and sunscreen for the day ahead.
“This little Aboriginal kid who used to hang around a lot,” Jo replied. They walked closer and she could now see that the young man was probably going to best her own six-foot height by at least a couple of inches once he stood upright. “I guess he grew up.” They drew closer and she called out. “Hughie!”
The dark-skinned man looked up and broke into a wide grin. He raised a hand in greeting and then began walking towards them, ignoring the scowl he was getting from Collingwood.
“Damn, Hughie, look at you,” Jo exclaimed, opening her arms wide and pulling the bashful man into an all-encompassing hug. “If it wasn't for the dopey way you wear that hat, I wouldn't have recognized you.”
“’lo, Miss Josie,” Hughie replied, pulling away from the hug and dipping his head shyly.
“Hey, didn’t we have a conversation a long time ago about you dropping the ‘Miss’?” Jo chided him gently, grinning all the way. “Just because you haven’t seen me for 15 years, there’s no need to go formal on me.”
Even with his coloring, it was possible to see the blush reaching all the way to the tips of Hughie’s ears. “Yes, Mi-, uh, yes, Josie,” he mumbled happily.
“That’s the way, mate,” Jo laughed. She turned to Cadie who had been watching the scene from a step or two back. “Hughie, I want you to meet my partner, Cadie.”
Cadie stepped forward and extended a hand, surprised to find the large, brown one that wrapped around it more soft and gentle than she’d expected from a man who worked with his hands all day.
“Hello, Hughie. It’s nice to meet you.”
If it was possible for the young man to blush harder, he did, the blonde’s sparkling green eyes and sunny smile charming him utterly.
“N-nice m-meetin’ you, M-miss C-Cadie,” he stuttered.
Cadie chuckled kindly. “Same rule applies for me, Hughie,” she said. “Just call me Cadie. I also answer to ‘hey, you’.” She grinned up at him, an action guaranteed to scramble his already besotted senses.
“Oh, I’d n-never do th-that, Mi-, uh Cadie,” he said hastily, even as he continued to hang on to her hand and avert his eyes.
Smitten, Jo thought, rolling her eyes good-humoredly. “Is there anybody on this farm you haven’t charmed instantly?” she teased her partner aloud, contributing even further to the man’s flustered state.
“Hughie!” He startled at the sharp yell, dropping Cadie’s hand immediately before he turned back to its source. Jack Collingwood beckoned to him. “Come and help me finish this, boy, or we won’t be going anywhere today.”
“Oh, I think I can come up with one I haven’t charmed,” Cadie muttered darkly as she watched Hughie hurrying back to his task. She wondered briefly if calling a black man ‘boy’ had the same unpleasant connotations here as it did back in the US. “I don’t think I like that man, Jo-Jo,” she said out loud, making a mental note to ask Jo later, when they had more time to themselves.
Her partner grunted her agreement, watching the way the two men interacted. Collingwood was as dismissive of the Aborigine as he would have been of a dog. The thought made Jo’s blood boil.
“And I bet I can guess where Hughie got that lump under his eye, too,” she murmured. “I wonder if Dad knows.”
“He knows,” came a growl from behind her. Jo swung round.
“Uh, hi Dad,” she said.
“Morning,” her father said gruffly. “Don’t you be concerning yourself with Jack, all right? I’ve already put him on notice. I’ll not have him kicking dogs, or mistreating Hughie. But he’s a good worker, and I need him.”
Jo raised her hands in concession. “It’s your call, Dad. No argument from me,” she said, wishing she could break through her parent’s standoffishness just for a moment or two.
“Come on, then. We’re wasting the best part of the day.” David stumped off towards the vehicles. Jo sighed.
“Do you think he’s ever gone let a glimmer of sunlight out?” she asked quietly. Cadie slipped her arm around her tall lover’s waist, waiting until Jo draped an arm across her shoulder before they started walking towards the others.
“Give him some time, love,” Cadie answered, happy to see that it hadn’t occurred to Jo to be uncomfortable with public displays of affection, at least so far. “I’m sure he’s just trying to figure it all out for himself.”
“I hope so.”
“Well, would you look at that,” Jack Collingwood muttered. “Bold as brass.”
Hughie looked up from the ATV’s engine, wondering what had his bad-tempered boss muttering this time. All he could see was Miss Josie and Miss Cadie – she pretty, eh? – walking their way, arms wrapped around each other. Hughie couldn’t see anything that would get Jack so messed up. He shrugged noncommittally and went back to working on the engine.
“Fuckin’ perverts. Look at ‘em, Hughie. Bold as brass,” he repeated. He spat on the ground as the pair walked past.
Hughie was spared from any further rumblings from Collingwood by David Madison.
“You got that thing back together yet?” asked his boss.
Hughie tightened the last bolt and dropped the engine cover back down. “Yeah, boss. He running real good now, for sure.”
“Okay then,” David accepted. “Let’s go. You two take the ATVs and when we hit Ingham Creek one of you head to the north boundary, and the other one go to the east fence. We’ll meet you at the top corner. All right?” David turned to the two women, trying not to let his discomfort with their easy affection show on his face. “You two come with me in the ute.”
Jo and Cadie exchanged a look. “Okay,” Jo said, unsure if she was happy about being in close quarters with her father for the next hour or so. What the hell are we gonna talk about?
They bounced along a dirt trail between stands of low scrubby bushes. Ahead of them the two men on the ATVs flanked either side of the trail, staying out of the ruts made by the larger vehicle on innumerable earlier trips. The ute’s air-conditioning unit was working overtime keeping the interior cool. The dust trails from the ATVs meant opening a window was not an option. David sat silently behind the wheel, negotiating the rough track at full speed thanks to years of practice and an intimate knowledge of the pitfalls of the dirt thoroughfare.
Cadie, as the smallest, sat between David and Jo, who was pressed against the left-hand door. The blonde wasn’t exactly comfortable in the confined space, well aware that her thigh was up against her father-in-law’s, but there hadn’t been a lot of choice.
Maybe we should have just sat in the back, she pondered. But then, that wouldn’t have gotten these two any closer to having a conversation, would it? Not that they’ve been exactly talkative anyway.
She glanced left at her lover’s profile, noting the tense ripple of muscles at the corner of Jo’s jaw. Grinding her teeth, Cadie realized. Oh yeah, she’s calm. A glance right revealed something that made her grin in reflex. David’s jaw was working just as hard as his daughter’s. Great, it’s genetic. She stifled a giggle.
Jo was aware that her partner was amused by something and turned to raise an enquiring eyebrow. Cadie just patted her thigh and smiled quietly as she shook her head.
Fine, Jo thought grumpily. Don’t tell me. She sighed. God, I wish I knew what to say to make everything all right with him, she thought, glancing over Cadie’s head to her father. I can’t even work out what it is that’s bugging him so much. Is it the past? She felt Cadie’s fingers slowly, and unconsciously, tracing a pattern on her thigh. Or is it the present? As no answer popped magically into existence she turned her eyes back to their path through the trees and tried to figure out where they were exactly. Hazy, 15-year-old memories started to coalesce. Coming up on Ingham Creek, she realized.
“Hughie and Jack going boundary riding once we hit the creek?” she asked her father.
“Yep,” he said succinctly. “We’ll cover a lot more ground if we split up and we haven’t looked at the fences at this end for a while.”
As he finished talking, Cadie could see they were approaching an intersection of sorts. Jack looked back over his shoulder at them and waved his right hand before splitting off and taking another track that led away to the left of them. A few seconds later Hughie did the same before steering his ATV to the right. David raised a hand in acknowledgement before gunning the ute forward along the original track.
Jo saw the slightly confused look on her partner’s face.
“We’re heading for the northeast corner of the property,” she explained. “Hughie and Jack are going to the fence lines north and east of us and they’ll meet us in the middle at the Top End Bore.”
“Ah, okay, thanks,” Cadie said, smiling at Jo. “They’ll fix any holes in the fence on the way, right?”
“That’s the theory,” David muttered. “If they come across anything too big for one bloke to fix, we’ll get to it on the way back.”
“Is there a problem at the bore that needs fixing?” Cadie asked.
“Not that I know of,” David replied. “But we haven’t been up here in a bit and it’ll need a good clean out and a bit of maintenance no doubt.”
“Good thing I brought my Swiss Army knife then,” Cadie said dryly. Both Madisons stared at her. “Kidding, kidding.”
They pulled into a wide, barren stretch of red earth where the two fence lines converged. David swung the ute around in a wide arc, pulling to a halt in a cloud of dust. After an hour of being bumped and jostled at high speed, Cadie was just grateful to be in one piece as she and Jo tumbled out of the truck. Jo stretched her long frame skywards, working the kinks out after being folded into the cramped quarters of the ute's cabin. Cadie turned in a slow circle, taking in the harsh environment.
To her right was a strange metallic contraption that seemed to be a jerry-rigged collection of pipes and motors. Water spurted intermittently from one rust-colored pipe into a long metal trough that ran for 30 feet along the line of the northern fence. Except things weren't quite going to plan. Something was blocking the trough and water was backed up towards the pump, spilling over the side and puddling uselessly on the brown, hard-packed earth.
“Ah, bugger,” muttered David as he walked around from the driver's side of the ute. “Wonder how long it's been like this?”
Jo had walked over to the trough and she stood grimly, looking down at whatever was blocking the flow of water. “Yeah, you're not going to like this either, Dad,” she said. He stalked over to join her, cursing as he caught sight of the sheep carcass sprawled in the trough.
“Can you two clear that out, and I'll get to work on stripping back the pump,” David asked. “It'll need recalibrating after that. God knows how long it’s been choking on itself.”
Jo grunted her assent to the task and took a quick glance at her partner, who was standing uncertainly a few paces away and had yet to see the none-too-pleasant sight. Let’s see if I can pull it out myself, she decided as she stepped up on to the edge of the trough.
A fully-grown sheep is a hefty beast at the best of times but water-logged and semi-bloated, the animal was a considerable weight to move. Thank God it was shorn not so long ago, Jo thought as she wrapped her hands around the sheep's back legs. With a grunt she tried to straighten her back, yanking the dead weight slightly in the right direction.
“Jo, wait,” Cadie exclaimed as she watched her partner straining. Carefully she stepped up onto the side of the trough, wincing slightly as smell wafted up from the disturbed corpse.
“It's okay, I can do this,” Jo protested.
“Don't be crazy. I can see how heavy that is. If you go hurting yourself on day one, the rest of the vacation isn't going to be much fun, is it?” Cadie smiled thinly at her partner as she put her hands on her hips. “And besides, Jo Madison, I'm no shrinking flower to be protected. I can handle it, okay? Or have you forgotten the fish guts?”
Jo grinned at her, feeling an interesting sense of pride welling up. “I remember. Okay, then. If you grab the front end maybe together we can swing it up and out,” she said.
They stood at opposite ends of the dead sheep, one foot on each rail of the trough. Together they bent down and grabbed a leg in each hand. Cadie tried to ignore the way her stomach flip-flopped at the greasy feel of the water.
“Here we go ... one, two, THREE!”
The two women hauled the sheep up, dripping water all over their feet and jeans. Then, with one combined grunt, they swung the carcass over the edge of the trough and dropped it with a squelch.
David sat on his haunches behind the pump, surreptitiously watching the two women deal with their nasty chore. Despite his best intentions, he found himself quietly impressed by the little American. She hadn't flinched at handling the carcass, even though Jo had been more than prepared to do the job herself. Cadie's got a bit of ticker, he decided as he began the laborious task of shutting the pump down.
“You want us to bury it, Dad?” Jo asked, looking back over her shoulder at the older man.
“Better,” he replied. “None of the animals will come for a drink if we leave it to rot.”
“Rightio,” his daughter agreed.
She's not doing too badly either, David conceded. You can take the girl out of the bush, but you can't take the bush out of the girl. For the first time since Josie had come home he allowed a little pride in his wayward daughter to surface as he watched her dragging the carcass over to a nearby tree. She's remembered the soil'll be softer over there, he realized. Cadie was pulling shovels out of the back of the ute.
Not sure I'll ever be comfortable with this, he thought as he refocused on dismantling the bore head in front of him. But I've got to find a way to get past it.
Jo let the sheep’s back legs drop with a grunt once she’d yanked it into the shade under the tree. Something about the carcass didn’t look right to her. Not that any dead animal looks right, she conceded. Jo’s brow furrowed as she tried to figure out what was bugging her about it. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d seen one of her family’s livestock dead in a paddock. Although it has been a while, she conceded.
The sheep had been in the trough a couple of days, she figured. Tentatively, she reached out and rubbed her fingers through the animal’s short regrowth of wool. Nothing unusual, apart from the stark reality of a half-starved beast, evident in the ribs she could easily feel through the cold skin. She tried not to think about it too much.
Finding nothing, she stood again and turned the sheep over. Frowning, she crouched down and began another search.
“What are you doing?” Cadie asked. There was something unnerving about watching her partner probing and prodding the carcass. Guess she’s used to dead bodies. Cadie mentally slapped herself. Get off that. But a part of her brain couldn’t help going to that dark place Jo had once inhabited.
“Something’s not right,” Jo muttered. And then her fingers found what they were looking for, near the beast’s temple. Immersion in the water had removed all traces of blood, but what Jo was feeling was unmistakable, and something she was all too familiar with. “Dad!”
David looked up from his task. “Yeah?”
“This sheep’s been shot.”
“What?” David dropped his spanner and stalked over to where Jo was crouched over the carcass.
“Take a look for yourself,” she said, shuffling around out of his way. “Just behind the left eye.”
Cadie also moved in for a closer look.
David grabbed the sheep's head unceremoniously, poking about with hands that were long used to dealing with the unpleasant realities of life on a farm.
“Bugger me,” he cursed as his senses confirmed Jo's theory.
“Why would anyone do that?” Cadie asked. “Was it injured in some way, or nearly dead from starvation?”
David looked up sharply at that.
“Haven't had to shoot any of my animals so far, young lady, and I don't ever intend things to get that bad.”
Cadie was taken aback by the man's vehemence. Guess I hit a nerve. Again. “I d-didn't mean any offence,” she said quickly. “I just thought that was what happened when the animals got too sick to eat and drink properly.”
“It is. But not around here,” David reiterated. “And not without me giving the say so.”
“Ease up, Dad,” Jo said quietly but firmly, frowning at her father. “Cadie didn't know and there's no point in getting angry with her about it.”
“It's okay, Jo,” Cadie murmured.
“No, she's right. I'm sorry Cadie,” David said wearily. “I'm just pretty pissed off about this. Bloody sheep are worth too much, even in this weather, to go shooting them for no apparent reason. I want to know who did this, so I can kick his arse from here to Coober Pedy.” He took his hat off and ran his hand through his thick, graying hair in frustration.
“How far are we from the road?” Jo asked, her memories of the lay of the land still vague.
David pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders. “Five miles maybe, as the crow flies. But there's no track. If anyone came from that direction they'd have to be pretty determined.”
Jo pushed herself up and dusted off her jeans.
“What's the alternative?” she asked. “Either someone came off the road to do it, or your neighbors got the urge to destroy your property.” She nodded in the direction of the northern fence, which separated the Madison land from their immediate neighbors. With a jolt she realized that farm belonged to Phil’s parents. Or, at least, it did. And knowing Phil’s parents like she did – or had done – that theory was out.
David looked up at his daughter, knowing her logic made sense.
“Alternatively, Hughie or Jack did it,” Jo continued.
“Not Hughie,” David said emphatically. “Boy doesn't have a malicious bone in his body. Last time we lost a lamb I found him in tears over it.”
Cadie and Jo exchanged a look, both knowing just what the other was thinking. We know exactly who is inclined to that kind of maliciousness, Cadie thought, seeing her partner's startling blue eyes narrow as she reached the same conclusion.
David stood up and looked at the two women, finding it easy to read their minds. “Why would Jack want to kill sheep?” he asked. “This was done a few days ago so it certainly can't be anything to do with that barney he had with you yesterday,” he said, nodding at Cadie.
Neither of them had an answer for that.
“I still think someone could have come off the road,” Jo said, not really wanting to believe that one of her father's employees would want to waste livestock. “Kids larking about maybe.”
Her father looked skeptical.
“Well, nothing we can do about it now, except bury it where it won't stink and keep our eyes open for anything else,” David said.
Cadie leaned on her shovel and wiped a filthy hand across her brow. Jo was filling in the last of the hole they'd dug for the dead sheep, but it had taken them close to two hours to get the task completed.
“It has to be over a hundred degrees,” the American said breathlessly. She couldn’t believe she could sweat so much.
“At least,” Jo grunted, heaving a last shovel-load of dirt onto the pile. “Make sure you drink plenty of water.”
Cadie put down her shovel and dug into the backpack, pulling out a large thermos of cold water.
“Pot, meet kettle,” she said, handing the thermos to Jo. “You first.”
Jo didn't argue. Her throat felt dry and rough from the ever-present dust and her shirt was plastered to her back with perspiration. She twisted off the lid of the thermos and drank deeply before handing it back to her partner.
“Your turn, Tonto.”
Cadie relished the feel of the cold liquid trickling down into her stomach. There was another thermos in the backpack and once she had drunk her fill from the first, she pulled it out. The blonde jammed her hat on her head before stepping out of the shade of the tree and walking towards Jo's father who was in the last stages of reassembling the bore head. As she approached she heard the rumble of the pump engine re-engaging. Water spurted out of the outlet pipe and splashed into the trough.
David pushed himself up off his haunches and rested his hands in the small of his back, arching stiffly. Cadie wordlessly handed him the full thermos.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You fixed it,” Cadie said, more to start a conversation than anything.
“Not much wrong with it in the end,” he said. “Does them good to get stripped back every now and then, though. Just so you can see what's what and what's going to need replacing soon.”
Cadie nodded, seeing the logic of that. They get out here so infrequently, it's better to be safe than sorry, she reasoned. She watched David draining the thermos with long, noisy gulps.
“I thought there'd be more animals here,” she said.
“Not with the dead'un around,” David explained. “That would've kept them away no matter how thirsty they were. Another good reason to clear the carcass right away.” He nodded in the general direction of the scrub away to the south of their position. “The sound of the pump will pull them back in soon.”
Almost before he had finished speaking there was movement from that direction and a handful of sheep pushed through into the clearing around the trough. Cadie grinned at David who shrugged his shoulders with a tiny quirk of his lips that could almost have been interpreted as a smile.
“Told you so,” he said. “In this weather, they're never too far away from water.”
More sheep came out of the scrub, ambling their way to the trough where they jostled for position. They were followed by a cow and calf.
David grunted in satisfaction. “Good,” he said. “Haven't seen that poddy in a couple of weeks. Was beginning to think we'd lost her.”
“Poddy?” Cadie asked. She thought she'd misheard him, David's propensity for barely moving his lips when he spoke added a touch of adventure to trying to interpret his brief utterances.
“The calf,” he explained. “We call 'em poddies out here.”
Cadie filed that one away in her in-built glossary of Australian terms. David walked over to the calf, crooning softly at it as he ran a hand over its withers, carefully inspecting. Cadie watched as she walked back to where Jo was loading the shovels back in to the ute.
“I didn't realize there were cattle on the station,” Cadie said. “I thought it was just sheep.”
“It pays to diversify when you can,” Jo said. “Dad's always run a small herd ... just 50 head or so. Not sure what he's got these days, though.”
“He seems to be opening up a little, sweetheart,” Cadie whispered as she leaned close. “It might be as good a time as any to have a real conversation with him.”
Blue eyes met green and Jo nodded slightly.
“Could be,” she murmured.
“Have you ever ridden one of these things?” Jo asked Cadie, indicating one of the ATVs. They’d eaten lunch as they’d waited for Hughie, and then Jack, to arrive in the clearing. Now they were helping the men load the equipment back into the ute.
“No,” Cadie replied, looking over the sturdy little vehicle’s controls. “But I’ve ridden a motorbike a couple of times. Is it much different from that?”
Jo shook her head. “Easier actually,” she replied. “These have got an automatic transmission, so there’s none of that fiddly gear changing to do.” She looked over at her father. David was talking with Hughie and Jack about some repairs that needed doing along the northern fence line which required more than one pair of hands. “Dad,” she called out. “Do you need Cadie and me to come with you?”
The older man shook his head. “Don’t think so,” he said. “You want to take the ATVs and head back home, love?” The endearment provoked a raised eyebrow from his daughter.
That’s a first, Jo thought. Somehow, as much as she wanted her father’s acceptance and affection, it kept surprising her when she caught glimpses of it.
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” she said aloud.
“S’fine with me,” he replied. “You got a cell phone with you?”
Jo felt for the instrument clipped to her hip. “Yep,” she replied.
“Okay,” he said, closing the back of the ute and clipping it in place. “Call and let your mother know what we’re doing, eh?”
“Um, Jo,” Cadie said uncertainly. “I’m not sure I can learn to handle this thing that quickly.”
Jo flashed her a broad grin that was full of confidence and love.
“Sure you can,” she disagreed happily. “Piece of cake. Hop on.”
Cadie smiled up at her lover, feeling Jo’s faith in her settle around her like a favorite old jacket. Impulsively, she reached up and cupped the taller woman’s cheek with a gentle palm.
“Have I told you lately that I adore you?” she said quietly.
“Mmmmmm, yes. But don’t let that stop you from telling me again,” Jo teased. She let Cadie’s hand draw her closer and then tenderly brushed her lips over the blonde’s. “We’re scandalizing the men,” she whispered, aware of three pairs of eyes burning into her back. It didn’t stop her from enjoying the feel of Cadie’s soft cheek against hers, though.
“Too bad,” Cadie murmured. “If they don’t like it they can kiss my a-… ” She was silenced by her lover’s mouth kissing her soundly. When they parted they were both grinning wildly. “You are so bad,” Cadie chuckled.
“Me?” Jo protested innocently. “You started it.”
Cadie let her eyes flick over to the three men who were hurriedly moving around the ute in a flurry of activity. For an instant she caught her father-in-law’s eye but his glance slid away almost immediately. Hmmmmm, she thought. Wish I knew what he was thinking.
“Did Dad just throw up on his boots?” Jo asked quietly, watching the frown crease the blonde’s brow. She preferred not to look back at her father, unwilling to see the disgust on her parent’s face, if that was indeed his reaction.
“No, love,” Cadie reassured her. “I’m not really sure what he’s thinking actually.” With a quick shake of her head she dismissed the thought from her head. She patted her lover’s hip and flashed her a quick smile. “Come on, skipper. Teach me how to use this thing.” She turned from Jo and threw a leg over the ATV’s saddle, lowering herself down on the wide, comfortable seat and settling her feet on the rests.
“Okay,” Jo said, moving to show Cadie the controls. “Throttle is just like a bike – twist the handgrip here.” She demonstrated. “Brakes, front and back, squeeze both hands. Take a tip from me; don’t hit the front ones too hard on their own.” She grinned, remembering a childhood accident that had sent her flying over the handlebars.
“There’s a story behind that smile, I’m thinking,” Cadie said.
Jo sniggered. “Oh yeah. I missed the roo with the bike, but found the tree with my head.”
Cadie winced. “Ouch. Is that how you got this?” She gently fingered the tiny scar at the corner of Jo’s left eyebrow.
“Uh … no, actually,” Jo muttered, her mood suddenly darkening at the memory of that particular hurt. A flick knife and soon-to-be-ex drug addict had done that, she remembered with a flinch.
Uh-oh, Cadie thought. One of these days I’m going to remember the life she’s led. “Come back, sweetheart,” she soothed, placing a calming hand on Jo’s belly. Blue eyes gone cold flicked to hers, and then warmed perceptibly. “I’m sorry,” Cadie said. “I didn’t mean to dredge that up.”
Jo smiled thinly. “Not your fault, love,” she replied. “I wish all my scars were just childhood accidents. It’s one of the consequences of the life I chose to live.”
“Stop it, Jo,” Cadie urged. “That life is gone now. It’s over.”
Jo looked down into green eyes that loved her totally, openly. Not for the first time, Jo felt the wonder of that warming her guts, like Cadie’s hand was warming the skin of her stomach through the thin cotton shirt she was wearing.
“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered.
Cadie looked up into a face full of vulnerability and honesty. “Bullshit,” she said bluntly. Then she broke into a crooked grin. “Now, come on. Show me how to start this thing and let’s get going.”
“Bossy little thing, aren’t ya?” Jo ruffled her companion’s hair, grateful both for Cadie’s faith and her willingness to leave Jo’s insecurities alone for the time being. I wonder if Mum would help me do something special for Cadie tonight, she pondered.
“And you love it,” Cadie said, gunning the ATV and taking off with a roar and a cloud of dust.
“Mum, is the Swinging Tree waterhole still running?” Jo asked Maggie later in the afternoon. She had just finished her shower and decided to enlist her mother’s help while Cadie was taking her turn.
Maggie looked up at her from the kitchen table where she had been working on the station’s books.
“I think so, love,” she replied. She tried to remember the last time she had been out to the waterhole, one of Jo’s favorite childhood haunts. “You remember what it was like,” she continued. “That’s always one of the last places to dry up. I’m sure there’s still some water in it.”
Jo hummed pensively. “I hope there’s still some flow through it,” she said. “Not much fun to swim in it if it’s gone stagnant.”
Maggie smiled at her daughter, who somehow looked younger with her wet fringe plastered against her forehead, and her bare feet slapping against the cool tile of the kitchen floor as she moved around, getting herself a drink.
“Only one way to find out, bloss,” she said practically. “Unless you want to give your father a call. But I don’t think he’s been out there in the last couple of weeks or so, anyway.” David and the two jackaroos hadn’t arrived home from their trip along the northern fence line yet, even though the afternoon was crawling towards sunset. Maggie watched Jo holding the fridge door open, studying the contents critically. “What have you got in mind, Josie?” There’s definitely something going on in that head, and I’m betting it’s got something to do with the full moon, and that pretty young blonde in the bathroom.
Jo gave up fridge inspection, closing the door and sitting down opposite her mother. Casually she lifted a long leg and draped it over the corner of the kitchen table, leaning back until the chair rocked on one leg. Maggie had to fight to contain the chuckle the very familiar posture provoked.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” Jo said.
Bingo, thought her mother smugly. “Yeeeeeeeessss,” she drawled.
“Whaaaaaaaat?” Jo answered with a drawl of her own.
“And, don’t tell me, you want to take Cadie out to the waterhole and have yourselves a romantic, moonlit picnic?” Maggie grinned at the look of undisguised surprise on her daughter’s face.
“I can’t be that predictable,” Jo complained. “And I know I didn’t make a habit of it when I was 17.”
Maggie just put on her most innocent face. “Let’s just say it’s genetic.” Jo thought about that for a few seconds before the realization dawned on her. She blushed furiously and her mother laughed out loud at her discomfort. “Relax, Josie. I swear, sometimes your generation thinks it invented sex.” She pushed herself up and walked into the kitchen’s large, well-stocked pantry. “Now then, let’s see what we can come up with for your picnic.”