" So, my friend, what's the story? " Jody asked Trishia when they found themselves alone in the kitchen, tossing a salad and slicing freshly baked Italian bread.
" You want the long version or the short one?"Trishia joked, but Jody could hear the tension in her voice.
" Short one, for now. The long one will come later, I guess."
" What did your mom tell you about Alice? "
Jody finished arranging the slices of bread in a cane basket, before turning around and looking at Trishia. There was a pensive look in her clear green eyes and the expression on her face was a serious one.
" Mom told me she gave Alice some food every day, after she left work. She said she had the impression that the girl is homeless, probably a runaway. When I asked why she wanted to help this girl, since there are so many, she said that there is something about Alice. She can't explain what, but she reckons she will find out, eventually," Jody chuckled. " And she told me what Alice did, when mom got mugged."
" Alice seems to suffer from....amnesia,"Trishia told Jody in a subdued voice. " Apparently she can't even remember her last name. Peter and I pushed her on a few things and we both had the strong impression that she really doesn't remember. Something has caused her to lose her memory, most likely a traumatic event."
" Like what?"Jody softly asked.
" We can't prove anything yet,"Trishia answered, a grim expression on her face. " But we think she's been abused. Physically and emotionally. We don't even want to think about other forms of abuse as well, at this point."
" Oh, my God,"Jody whispered, feeling a chill travel down her spine. " Poor kid. Is there anything we can do to help her, Trish? "
Trishia smiled and felt her heart warm by the use of the word 'we'. She had not underestimated the McDonnell family.
" I hope that a peaceful, quiet environment will help her to regain her balance. With a little luck, that might trigger some memories. But most of all she seems to really need a place where she can feel safe and get some rest."
" Are there any...homes...or shelters that can provide that?" Jody hesitantly asked, already picturing the blond teenager like a trapped animal in a crowded room, with no chance to escape. " I mean...there must be some place.... "
" Probably not, sis, " Lucy's voice suddenly sounded behind Jody.
She had heard part of Trishia's explanation and Jody's response to that, but the two women had been so engrossed in their conversation, they had not noticed her presence.
Lucy stepped closer to her smaller sister and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, giving her a friendly squeeze.
" Trish has offered to take her in for a while, until we find another solution,"Lucy explained, winking at her friend. She suppressed a smile when her sister's response was exactly the way she had predicted.
Jody whirled around, her green eyes wide in unbelief, almost shock, when she looked from Lucy to Trishia.
" But...that's very sweet and honourable of you Trishia, but your apartment is so tiny! It's hardly big enough for one."
Lucy took a deep breath and for a moment her gaze was caught by Trishia's, who raised an eyebrow and almost imperceptibly nodded. Taking courage from the look of trust Trishia gave her, Lucy turned to her sister, putting her hands on both her shoulders and looked down on her with a small smile.
" I have been thinking about that, Pea,"she started, using Jody's nickname, which made her sister smile. " And I came up with an idea. I...."
" I need to talk it over with Sam,"Jody interrupted, her words taking Lucy by surprise.
" But....how...? " Lucy stammered, seeing the smirk on Trishia's face.
" I know you, sis," Jody chuckled. " And I don't mind the idea, but it's not only my decision to make."
" I know, Jody," Lucy answered. "And I do understand it's a bit awkward. I mean, I don't blame you for thinking we are trying to dump 'our problem' on you, it's just that.... "
" It seems the best solution," Jody said. " And I agree. Besides, mom will be here the next few days as well. Alice seems to like her, so.. I will talk to Sam after dinner. Okay?"
" You are the best, Jody," Trishia sighed, bending closer to the smaller woman and kissing her on the cheek. "Thank you. "
" No worries, " Jody smiled, grabbing a bowl full of salad and heading towards the door. " Bring out the bread, Luce, will you? "
" Um...yeah...sure...,"Lucy stammered, still at loss for words by her sister's response.
Only when strong fingers teasingly tickled her neck, she was able to kick her brain back in gear.
" Wow, that went well," she sighed. " I already had a high opinion of my big sister, but it just jumped a few notches. "
Trishia smiled and wrapped her arms around the smaller body in front of her. She buried her face in Lucy's hair and sighed contentedly when she felt the dark haired woman lean into the contact.
" You are quite amazing yourself,"Trishia softly spoke. " In fact, your whole family is just amazing."
Lucy lifted up her face to be able to look at her friend's face. Their gazes locked and a small smile tugged on the corner of Lucy's mouth. Her eyes were inviting and with a smile of her own, Trishia brought her face closer, capturing a pair of warm, soft lips with a tender, but insistent touch. Immediately, Lucy responded by sliding her arms around Trishia and pulling her closer.
The kiss rapidly intensified and became deep and passionate. Reluctantly Trishia slowly withdrew, until her forehead touched Lucy's and they looked at each other with a smile.
" The bread," Trishia gently reminded Lucy.
" Bread? Oh, yes, the bread,"Lucy grinned. " I guess we'd better join the girls, before they start to give us grief. "
" Yes, since Fiona is around."
Wide eyed Alice stared at the abundance of food in front of her. In spite of the fact that she had a sandwich at the police station, she could feel her stomach rumble.
There were different types of salads, fruit, fresh bread and juicy steaks that came just off the grill.
She could not remember the last time she had a meal like that, if ever. Nervously she looked at her companions, who were happily chattering and not in a hurry to start eating any time soon. If only she knew how to compose herself. She did not want everyone to know she was starving, but she did not know how long she could resist the delicious meal in front of her. The best thing to do was to simply wait and see what the others would do.
Alice nervously played with the hem of her shirt and desperately tried not to look too hungry. When she finally looked up, it was straight into a pair of clear blue eyes, that looked at her with understanding.
Sam winked at Alice and cleared her throat.
" Ladies! I don't know about you all, but I could eat a horse...or two,"she grinned, seeing Fiona's indignant look. " And we have to go through dinner to get to that delicious banana cake I produced, soooo.....let's say grace and dig in, okay?"
" Of course, honey,"Jody cheerfully answered, not missing Alice's wide eyes reaction to her term of endearment.
Everybody reached out to grab the hand of the person next to them and Alice hesitantly put her hand in Jody's and Joan's.
" Jody, will you do us the honour?" Sam smiled.
Jody bend her head in respect and her soft, but clear voice filled the air.
" Dear Father in heaven. We'd like to thank you for the abundance of food in front of us. We know we are blessed by these riches and realize there are many people who suffer from hunger every day. We also want to thank you for Alice, who made sure mom was able to return to us safely today. "
Alice almost jumped up after hearing those words and felt her face grow warm. With growing confusion she realized this was the first time in her life, anyone had thanked God for her and it brought tears to her eyes. Squeezing her eyes shut, she willed them away.
" .....and we offer you this prayer through Jesus, your son, amen."She suddenly heard Jody finish and with a simultaneous, friendly squeeze, both her hands were freed.
"Enjoy, everyone," Sam spoke. " There is enough for everybody, so, don't be shy!"
" As if,"Fiona snorted, digging her fork in a big piece of meat and putting it on her plate. " This looks good, Sam. I might come and live here. "
Jody laughed and handed Alice a bowl with potato salad, giving the girl an encouraging nod.
" Try this, " she smiled. " Sam made it. She says it's a secret Dutch recipe, so, we don't know what she put in it, but it does taste great."
" Dutch? " Alice asked, hearing the word leave her mouth and immediately feeling awkward about her response.
" Sam is from The Netherlands,"Fiona helpfully explained. " She came here because she's afraid the melting of the ice caps will drown her country and she can't swim. "
" Very funny, Fi,"Sam replied, winking at Alice. " Don't believe anything she says, Alice. She is the Family Nut. "
Alice's blue eyes looked at Sam with interest and for a moment she forgot her reservations.
" You don't have an accent. Well, you do, but I thought you were a pom...I mean, British "
" My dad is,"Sam explained, with a twinkle in her eye. " My mom is Dutch and I grew up in The Netherlands. But I was raised bilingual. I guess my dad rubbed off on me."
Alice slowly put down the bowl of potato salad and wrecked her brain to come up with...something she once heard or read about Sam's country. It was so hard, because the few memories she did have, were safely locked away in a dark corner of her mind and she consciously kept them there.
But suddenly she knew. It had been in a magazine she had found a few months before, in one of the trash cans in a park. There had been an article in there about Europe and she remembered reading something about The Netherlands as well.
She still felt very vulnerable and uneasy. For a moment she battled with herself, but her curiosity won.
" I...that's where the Deltaworks are, right?"
Surprised Sam looked up and a big smile covered her face.
" Yes! Wow, Alice, I am impressed. Most people have never heard about that wonder of engineering."
" I...I read it in a magazine,"Alice mumbled, staring at her plate. " It was built because of that flood."
" You are right,"Sam nodded. " In 1953 a large part of the Lowlands was flooded and a lot of people drowned. Because twenty-six percent of the country is below sea level, they built a big dam that would keep the sea out. It has huge gates and when there is a big storm and a chance of flooding, they lower the gates and keep the sea out."
" Really?"Trishia asked with interest. " Twenty-six percent is below sea level?"
" Yes, it is,"Sam answered. " And we have a dense population. When another flood would occur, there could be an enormous amount of casualties."
Sam turned her attention back to Alice and smiled.
" I have a book about it. If you are interested I will show it to you after dinner. "
" Umm...well...thank you,"Alice stammered. " I am....interested, that is. "
" Great,"Sam exclaimed, genuinely pleased to have found someone to share one of her interests with. " I will get you the book. You can have a look at it and tell me what you think later."
" Do you have an interest in water management, Alice ?" Joan asked, full of interest and eager to get to know the young girl better.
Feeling all eyes on her, Alice nervously fidgeted with the hem of her T-shirt. She felt a blush creep up and quickly cast down her eyes.
At first she didn't know what to answer, but a tickling sensation in the back of her brain became more and more insistent and finally she looked up, a shy smile on her face.
" Yes,"she answered, somehow knowing it to be the truth. " I have always been interested in dams and things to control water with. It's...interesting."
Trishia's eyes searched for Lucy's and they exchanged a look of pleasure. Things were going better than expected. True, Alice was still skittish and withdrawn, but Jody, Sam and Joan seemed to be able to involve the teenager in their conversation and Alice's responses were soft spoken and shy. The teenager had seemed to relax a little, while she cleaned her plate in record time.
" If you want some more, just dig in, Alice, " Sam encouraged the girl with a smile. " As long as you keep a spot for the cake. "
" Sam's famous banana cake,"Fiona mumbled with a chuckle. " I have to admit it hasn't killed me yet."
" If that had been the case, you would be a talking corpse, little sister,"Lucy dryly remarked. " And probably not in need of any food at all, which would leave more for us. My goodness, girl, where do you put it? "
Fiona smirked, while she piled another helping of potato salad and meat on her plate. Apparently not impressed with her sister's remark.
" I am a growing girl,"she simply stated. " Research shows that teenagers with a growth spurt need extra nutrition. "
" And does that 'nutrition' also reach their brain?"Lucy asked with an innocent face. " Or is that just needed to fill up those hollow arms and legs?"
" I am not answering that question,"Fiona replied with a raised eyebrow. " My report card speaks for itself. "
" I take that as a 'no'," Lucy grinned, never one to pass up on a chance to tease any of her siblings.
Fiona rested her fork on her plate and shot a look at her older sister.
" When you ever....no, I will rephrase that, IF you ever get some common sense, I will be going mad with happiness. But until that time comes, I will just suffer your discriminating remarks with my usual dignity."
After those words, Lucy just laughed heartily and playfully slapped her younger sister on the back, almost causing her to spit out the mouthful of food she was chewing on.
" Never lose that sharpness, Fi, you will need it when you grow up. "
Fiona snorted and feigned a long-suffering look, but everybody could see the twinkle in her eyes. She always enjoyed the bantering with her sisters and even though her words could be sharp at times, her family knew they were never meant to hurt anyone. Fiona loved and admired her older sisters, she basically worshipped the ground they walked on, even though she would never, ever admit that.
Alice had listened to the conversation between the sisters, secretly pleased the attention had been drawn away from her. It had felt good not to feel invisible anymore, although it all had been overwhelming.
Inwardly she had cringed at the sharp words and her muscles had tensed while she expected a fight to break out among them. But a nervous look across the table had showed a relaxed grin on Sam's face and slowly Alice had let out the breath she unconsciously had been holding.
A hand gently squeezed her shoulder and when Alice looked up she saw quiet compassion in a pair of green eyes.
" Don't mind them,"Jody advised with a soft smile. " They are like that all the time, but basically they really miss each other if they are apart for very long."
The gentle eyes held her captive and when Alice felt herself smile back, she shyly cast down her eyes, annoyed by the blush she felt creeping up her cheeks.
She was assaulted by a whirlwind of emotions and briefly she closed her eyes, willing away the dark panic that was trying to get a hold of her. It's claws were scratching at her heart, desperately trying to block out any emotion that tried to surface, because experience had taught her that the ability to feel, meant the risk of getting hurt. And she had only survived by suppressing anything that could make her vulnerable.
Jody saw the slender fingers tremble, when Alice pushed back her hair and she caught the worried lookTrishia cast her.With a quick smile and an imperceptible nod she reassured the policewoman that everything was all right.
After a nice dinner, filled with bantering and laughter, everybody helped out with clearing the table and loading up the dishwasher. And while Joan started to make some fresh coffee and hot tea, Jody managed to corner Sam and drag her into the utility room.
" What's up, honey?"Sam asked, pulling Jody into her arms. " You don'twant to have your way with me now, do you? I mean, your mom is in the other room and.."
" Sam!"Jody whispered, with a laugh. " Although I find the idea very appealing, that is not the reason why I wanted to see you in private."
She snuggled deeper into Sam's arms and put her head against a strong shoulder, sighing in contentment. No matter how much she loved their house and property, whenever she was in Sam's arms, she felt really at home.
The arms around her tightened and she could feel Sam resting her cheek on the top of her head.
" Okay, sweetie,"Sam's voice rumbled in her ear. " If you didn't drag me away from our guests to have a little roll in the hay, there must be something else. What is thou scheme, Oh, Lady? "
Jody chuckled and kissed the cotton underneath her head.
" Always seeing through me, aren't you? "
"Always," Sam answered, loosening her grip around Jody's body.
" It's about Alice, " Jody began, raising her head from it's comfortable position to be able to look Sam in the eyes.
" Tell me,"Sam encouraged, tenderly brushing a strand of hair away from Jody's forehead. "What's up?"
Quickly Jody told her lover about Alice's story and the way Trishia and Lucy had decided to try and help the girl.
Sam never interrupted Jody and her blue eyes shone with pride when the smaller woman ended with the question Sam had already expected. She brought her face closer and softly kissed Jody on the lips.
" You are a remarkable woman, Jody McDonnell Stevens, and I love you more each and every day. Of course Alice is welcome here. She can stay in the house with us, it's not like we don't have any spare bedrooms."
" Thank you, Sam,"Jody sighed, standing on her toes to give the tall, blond woman a heartfelt kiss. " Of course we need to talk things through with Trishia, I mean, I suppose she must have some sort of plan, but I am just glad we can help them out."
" You do realize that Alice is a troubled kid, honey. It might be very difficult for her to accept any kind of help."
" I know, Sam. But there was a time I was homeless and who knows what would have happened to me if Megan's mother had not helped me out. She saved my life and sanity. I owe it to her to try and help another girl in need."
" And I love you for it,"Sam smiled.
" Why don't you show Alice a bit of the place, Fiona?"Jody suggested some time later, after they all had been enjoying Sam's precious banana cake. "I know you are dying to have a look at the horses."
A big grin split Fiona's face and her dark green eyes sparkled with anticipation.
" Good idea, sis,"she answered, pushing back her chair and looking at Alice. "Come on, Alice. Let's go to the stables. Sam and Jody have got a couple of horses. They are really cool, can you ride? "
Before Alice could answer Sam shot Fiona a stern look.
" No riding, Fiona,"she warned. " Even if Alice knows how to ride a horse, I want to be there the first time she does. I don't want any accidents, you know how skittish Azrel can be!"
Fiona let out a deep sigh and slowly shook her head.
" I am hurt, Sam. I thought you trusted me,"she complained, but there was a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Lucy just snorted and opened her mouth to respond to her sister's remark, but Trishia's hand squeezed her arm and uncharacteristically she remained silent.
" I do trust you,"Sam grinned. " I trust you to do as I tell you. Last time you and Yarrah went for a ride, Norah threw her off three times. "
" She wasn't hurt, " Fiona defended herself. " Besides, it was Yarrah's own fault, she was mocking around, "
" As I recall, Yarrah's mother told me she had only been riding twice before,"Jody spoke.
" As if I knew that,"Fiona answered with a shrug. " Yarrah told me that her people have always been one with the land and animals and she said riding Norah wouldn't be a big deal."
" She probably forgot horses are not native to this country,"Sam dryly remarked, making Lucy chuckle.
" Whatever,"Fiona said, ignoring the steps and jumping off the verandah. "Come on, Alice, let's go, before they tie me down and put me in a cage."
" Great idea, " Lucy grinned. " I think Trishia has some handcuffs in the car."
Fiona stopped dead in her tracks and when she turned around, Lucy knew she was in trouble. Without looking she knew that Trishia, who was sitting next to her, was trying to hide a smile.
" Has she now?"Fiona drawled, raising one eyebrow. " Using the cities' resources for your own pleasure, huh? Wow, sis, I didn't know you had it in you! Kinky! "
" Fiona! " Joan McDonnell warned, but Trishia, Jody and Sam burst out laughing, while Lucy bit her lip and desperately tried to stop blushing.
Fiona grinned, blew Lucy a kiss and turned around to casually walk towards the back of the house, where the stables could be found.
Lucy hid her heated face in her hands and softly groaned, not able to look her mother in the eyes yet. When she felt Trishia's hand gently rub her back in slow, lazy circles, she turned around and buried her face against the taller woman's shoulder.
" Help,"she mumbled. " My little sister is growing up."
Jody chuckled, seeing Fiona and Alice disappear around the corner.
" You know, Lucy, this is just a taste of your own medicine,"she said, not feeling sorry for her sister at all. " Fiona is just like you, so, you haven't seen anything yet! Remember how you teased Sam and me after you saw us kissing behind dad's shed?"
" That is a hundred years ago,"Lucy objected with a sigh. " That doesn't count anymore. "
" Kissing behind the shed?"Joan echoed. " When was that? "
Jody and Sam looked at each other and they smiled, remembering that summer's day, almost a decade ago, like it was yesterday.
" Well, that was one of those holidays Sam came to visit, when she was staying with her uncle and aunt", Jody explained. " I guess I must have been...what? Eighteen, which would have made Sam nineteen."
" Puppy love,"Lucy joked, raising her head from it's resting place and snuggling closer in Trishia's arms.
Joan looked at her eldest daughter and smiled with affection. Once she had been able to stand up against her religiously fanatic and dictatorial husband, she had quickly grown accustomed to the relationship between Jody and Sam. In her view love was a beautiful thing. And if her children found that love with someone of the same gender, it did not make any difference. She had accepted Jody's choice completely and secretly hoped that Lucy would settle down as well, some day soon. Trishia was good for her quick witted, sometimes rebel daughter. But even though they spent a lot of time together, Lucy did not give the impression of wanting to take their relationship into something more permanent. And Joan sometimes worried if the dysfunctional relationship she and her ex-husband used to have, would scare her children away from committing to a partner. After all, the example had not been a good one.
" What's that serious look for, Mom?" Jody softly asked.
Joan looked up into a pair of concerned green eyes and smiled, ignoring the throbbing of her bruised face.
" I was just thinking how happy you are, which makes me happy in return," she answered, affectionately patting Jody's hand. " And how appropriate to name this place Murrook Farm."
Alice quietly walked next to Fiona, curiously taking in her surroundings. The stables were supposed to be behind the house, but when they arrived there, Alice couldn't detect any building. With a frown she looked around.
" I know, they say it's behind the house, which basically is true," Fiona explained, seeing the unasked question in the other girl's eyes. " See those trees?"
Alice followed Fiona's outstretched finger and nodded when she saw a group of huge trees, about fifty meters behind the house.
" It's behind those trees. Pretty neat, cause in the summer it's nice and cool in the stables."
Fiona looked aside and pulled a face, which made Alice smile.
" Those stables justify the name of the place," she grinned. " I mean, what is a farm without animals, right?"
Alice nodded and sucked in her bottom lip. Fiona clearly did her best to make her feel comfortable and even though Alice appreciated the gesture, she was still not very at ease with the whole situation. But Fiona was no adult, she was about her own age and even though Alice's experiences with peers had mostly been painful and embarrassing, she felt that somehow, Fiona was different from the girls she sometimes encountered on the beach, or in the streets. The ones who pointed at her and laughed, or called her names. Or the small groups who followed her around, shouting at her. Who sometimes even threw rocks at her.
" What does Murrook mean?" she suddenly and hesitantly asked.
" Happy," Fiona answered. " It's an Aboriginal word, which means ' Happy'. And I guess it is a happy place. I mean, my sister married the love of her life, eventually, after being separated for a lot of years. Sam and Jody loved each other ever since I was just a little kid. But something happened and they didn't see each other for years. Then, accidentally, they ran into each other again and...wham! Now they are married."
Alice stood still and looked at Fiona. Her blue eyes wide with surprise.
" They are married?"
Fiona, not aware her companion had halted, turned around and looked at the blond girl with a frown.
" Yes, they are. In Sam's home country it's legal for same sex couples to get married. So they did. Of course here things are a bit different, but they did marry each other including all the official mumbo jumbo everybody is always raving about."
Alice didn't immediately answer. The thoughts were racing through her mind and she nervously bit her lip, trying to bring order into the chaos inside her head. She already knew that things at Murrook Farm were different, the occasional term of endearment and the soft touches between Jody and Sam had clued her in.
"Gotta shoot them all. Damn queers!" a rough voice suddenly sounded in her head, almost making Alice jump.
The blood drained from her face and Fiona cautiously stretched out a hand to touch the blond girls arm. She looked sick and Fiona wondered if it had just been her remark about Sam and Jody being married.
" Um..listen, Alice,"she stammered. " It's no big deal, okay? I know a lot of people find it strange, or maybe even offensive, but Jody is my sister and she is one of the most gentle people I know. I love her and the first one who says anything bad about her...well, they will have to deal with me. So, if you have any problems with their relationship..."
" No," Alice's husky voice interrupted Fiona's awkward speech. " It's not that."
Fiona stuffed her clenched fists in the pockets of her shorts and desperately tried not to lose her patience. Bigotry was something she did not tolerate and just the idea of somebody making one of her sisters a target of ignorance and discrimination, made her blood boil.
" You look like you have seen a ghost,"she mumbled, eyeing the pale blonde wearily.
" I think I heard one,"Alice whispered with trembling lips.
Seeing the confusion on Fiona's face she swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
" I....I think I had some sort of flash back, she explained.I..it's...it scared me."
Alice knew it was a lame explanation, but how could she tell Fiona about her long hard fight to not remember. To forget. That survival of her sanity depended on her ability to lock away her memories and numb her emotions. That there was safety in not being able to feel.
The memory of the voice had shaken her to her core. In a split second, all she had been trying to forget had threatened to come rushing back to her. Her heart had been caught in the cold grip of fear and Alice had almost panicked. Again. Like in the parking garage.
" Twice,in one day,"she mumbled, almost inaudible.
" Sorry?"Fiona asked.
" Nothing,"Alice sighed. " I am sorry if I gave the impression I did not accept your sister's relationship. I do. I really do. "
" Okay, I am glad," Fiona simply stated, hesitantly putting a hand on Alice's shoulder. " But what happened? I thought you were gonna faint."
Alice stared at her worn out tennis shoes and shrugged her shoulders, not wanting Fiona to see the fear in her eyes. Part of her wanted to shake of the gentle hand that touched her, because it made her feel. The other part craved the touch of another human being, to acknowledge her existence and make her feel alive.
As if Fiona could sense the inner conflict of the other girl, she slowly removed her hand and stuffed it back into her pocket.
" I don't know much about, you know, the things that...haunt you," she off-handedly remarked. " I know what Mom told me, about you having no home and all, so I guess you have been through a lot of crap. Must have been awful. And if you don't want to, you don't have to talk about it, that's cool with me. Just..if you do want to, well....I might be a brat, but I am a good listener."
Alice moistened her dry lips and nodded, still too off balance and shy to look up into Fiona's face. Instead she looked down at her feet, softly kicking the ground and creating tiny clouds of red dust.
" Thanks," she finally answered, knowing that talking about her demons would be impossible, since she did not even know what exactly they were and where they came from. But she appreciated Fiona's offer and a small ray of hope suddenly pierced through the thick, dark wall that had been surrounding her heart for such a long time already. Like a hesitant ray of sunlight, after a heavy summer's storm. The warmth that suddenly invaded her senses, almost took her breath away and with fear and wonder she realised that for the first time, in what seemed like forever, she did not want to raise her defences.
" Let's have a look at those horses, " Fiona smiled, relieved to see that the color had returned to Alice's cheeks. " You know how to ride?"
Alice shook her head and tried not to shiver. She didn't want to risk the tentative friendship with Fiona, by declaring she was afraid of horses. Especially not since the other girl seemed totally smitten by the animals.
" They are real cool horses, " Fiona continued. " Azrel is Sam's, he is a bit wild, but Sam is a great rider. Norah is Jody's and meek as a lamb. They want to see if those two will breed. That would be so great, having a foal around."
Fiona pushed open the stable door and motioned Alice to follow her.
" I bet Jody will teach you how to ride Norah. She's a good horse when you first start. You could ride every day, cool. Maybe Sam would even let us ride together in a while, once you get the nack of it. I..."
" Wait a minute," Alice interrupted, her blue eyes wide in shock. " What did you just say? About me riding every day?"
" Of course," Fiona answered. " Oh, they haven't told you yet, have they?"
She sighed deeply and shook her head.
" Figures. I mean, they think they are adults, but sometimes they have the common sense of a wombat. From what I picked up today, they will ask you to stay here."
Alice's heart started pounding so fast that she was convinced Fiona could hear it. Her breathing hitched and she had to close her eyes and concentrate not to turn around and bolt out of the stable.
Suddenly feeling weak she stretched out her hand and leaned against the wall for support.
" I don't know the details, yet!" Fiona spoke. " But hey, it's a good deal. My sister is a great person and Sam is just, well, she is just fantastic. You will be safe here."
Those last words were softly spoken and Alice knew that Fiona had been able to read the fear in her eyes.
" But...I...," Alice swallowed hard and took a deep breath. " I can't. They don't even know me."
" I am sure time will fix that," Fiona smirked, leaning her shoulder against the wall and twirling a piece of hay between her slender fingers.
" I could be a criminal," Alice objected, not able to hide the bitterness in her voice. " A junkie, a thief or a murderer."
Fiona stuck the piece of hay between her healthy looking teeth and started chewing on it, studying Alice with clear eyes. Slowly she shook her head.
" Nah! You look too honest. Besides, you rescued my Mom from those thugs. I don't think a criminal would have bothered."
" B..but why would they want to?" Alice wondered out aloud.
" Because they are good people. And my sister knows what it's like to be on the streets."
Alice's blond head jerked up and she looked at Fiona with big, unbelieving eyes. That gentle, beautiful woman had been homeless once?
" It's a long story," Fiona explained, seeing the question in Alice's eyes. " Maybe Jody will tell you about it one day. But somebody helped her back then and that probably saved her life. She would not turn down an opportunity to help someone else in return. I know my sister."
Alice pushed back her long hair and tried to determine whether she was living a nightmare and needed to wake up, or if it was a dream she wanted to prolong for as long as she could. It was all so confusing. Only yesterday her life had been so predictable. She slept wherever she could find a safe spot for the night. She ate whenever she could find some food, or whenever she managed to find some money on the street. Or whenever she was given something by kind people, like Joan.
Once she had become used to it, she had embraced the safety of being invisible, except for those who refused to close their eyes to the misery and pain of others. But those people were outnumbered by the ones who passed her by on the street, seemingly looking straight through her, or turning their heads so they did not have to look her in the eye. Doing that would acknowledge her existence and might make them feel compelled to help. Numerous times Alice had seen guilt in the hastily averted eyes. At first it had made her angry and after a while she had felt contempt for those blinded by their own fortune. But in the end she had learned to ignore them and block out the feelings they originally invoked in her. Until she had become a shadow of society. A non-existent.
" So, what do you think? " Fiona's voice suddenly filled the silence. " You think you'd like to stay here for a while?"
Alice had to think about that question. Fiona could tell by the furrowed brow and the pensive expression on her face. She had to weigh her options and mentally made a quick list of possibilities. It was a short list. She knew, from previous experiences, that if she refused to stay at Jody's and Sam, Trishia would be forced to place her in a shelter, until they had found out who she was and where she came from. Alice could not remember. The only thing she knew was the feeling of dread and panic whenever she tried to remember where she belonged.
Of course she could always run away from the shelter, like she had done before, it's not like there would be a search party send out to look for her. Nobody ever bothered before. But deep down inside, Alice knew this time it would be different. So, if she would be sensible, she'd accept the hospitality that was offered, without questioning it. Just go with the flow and see where she would end up.
"Trish, don't you think that would be a little...harsh?"Lucy asked, her dark eyebrows furrowed in a frown. " I mean, I am all for honesty and clarity, but would it be wise to confront her like that? It might put her off."
" You think?"Sam wondered. " I don't know, Luce. It seems pretty straightforward to me. Alice does look to be quite intelligent. I don't think she'd appreciate Trishia beating around the bush. Just telling her what the options are seems fair enough. She does have a choice, you know."
The five of them had been discussing Alice's situation and the way it would be handled best.
Lucy and Trishia were grateful that Jody and Sam were willing to take the homeless girl into their house and to try and help her as best as they could. But Trishia didn't want the newly wed couple to think she was dumping the girl on them and she promised to work hard to find a better solution and to be around as much as she could to try and help out.
She had cautiously warned Sam and Jody about the suspicion she and Peter had concerning the girl's past. When she had mentioned the fact that it was very likely that Alice had been a victim to abuse, Sam's face had paled and she had grabbed Jody's hand for support.
" I had a friend once...in college, " Sam explained with difficulty, seeing the questioning gaze in her partner's worried eyes. " She...was abused as a child, in fact, it lasted until she was about seventeen. She...couldn't handle it and eventually she..took her own life. "
Sam swallowed hard and wondered why it took the confrontation with a situation like Alice's, to remember Wanda. After all those years.
" Alice doesn't remember,"Trishia emphasised. " We are not sure, but we have a strong feeling about this. Unfortunately we base this on experience. But Sam, if you think this might be too much, I will understand. "
Sam glanced at Jody and found comfort in the look of love and understanding that was being sent her way.
" It's not too much,"she finally promised, her voice strong and confident. " The memory just hit me by surprise. Jody and I will try and make Alice feel at home, that is, if she wants to stay here."
" And if she does, we will just take it from there,"Jody added. " Just take it day by day and see how things develop."
Lucy smiled warmly at her sister and her hand searched for Trishia's larger one.
" I think that would be a great start, " the police woman remarked, squeezing the fingers that had wrapped itself around hers. " If Alice has a place where she can feel safe and find some rest, she actually might remember who she really is and where she comes from."
" I hope so, " Joan remarked, carefully touching the purple bruise on the side of her face. " She seems to be a very nice girl."
Alice had quietly followed Fiona into the stables and had kept a safe distance from the horses who seemed like giants to her. Azrel was a black stallion, who nickered softly when he caught sight of Fiona, while Norah was a light brown mare, who thoroughly enjoyed Fiona's hand rubbing her nose.
In spite of Fiona's, almost sworn statement that the horses were 'absolute angels' and were just 'big horse looking teddy bears', Alice hadkept her distance. She had shivered when Fiona opened the door to Azrel's stable and stepped into the box with the big animal.
" See?"Fiona had called out with a smirk. " He's a sweetie. "
But the dark haired girl had felt sorry for Alice and after giving Azrel and Norah a good scratch, she had taken Alice back outside.
They slowly walked back towards the house, enjoying the cool ocean breeze that brought some relief after a hot day.
" I have never met someone who is terrified of horses, are you sure you are an Aussie?"Fiona gently teased.
" I don't know,"Alice heard herself answer, to her own surprise.
She usually kept to herself, not willing to share information about herself with strangers. And in her world, everybody met that qualification.
" Really?"Fiona asked, glancing at the girl next to her. " Must be weird, not to know who you really are. So, how do you know your name is Alice? " she bluntly asked in the straightforward Fiona way.
Alice sighed and shrugged her shoulders. She was bone tired. Her day had been long and difficult. And most of all very frightening.
Fiona's question was an honest one and logical and somehow Alice didn't mind the dark haired girl asking her questions.
" I don't know,"Alice had to answer. " It seemed...familiar to me, so I just thought that could be my name."
They had arrived at the verandah and slowly climbed the stairs. The adults were enjoying the view and the chattering of birds in the distance, where there was a waterhole.
Jody and Sam were snuggled up on the bench. The smaller woman leaning against the tall ones chest, with Sam's long arms safely wrapped around her body. They didn't move when the teenagers arrived, having decided that, if Alice did want to stay with them for a while, she had to know what kind of relationship they had.
" Azrel and Norah say 'hi',"Fiona grinned, falling down in a chair and motioning Alice to do the same. " Azrel didn't understand why I couldn't take him out for a nice ride. I told him you didn't trust me."
Sam who knew her sister in law like the back of her hand, just grinned and refused to take the bait.
" Brat,"she grumbled, which made Jody chuckle.
"Do you like horses, Alice?"Jody asked the blond teenager who was sitting in one of the chairs, staring at her fidgeting fingers.
Alice looked up with something close to panic in her blue eyes. It was obvious Sam and Jody loved their horses. How would they respond when she told them she was afraid of them? Would they laugh?
" I..um..they look beautiful, but...I..."she stammered, feeling really embarrassed and wishing the earth would open to swallow her up.
" I used to be afraid of horses,"Jody explained, guessing what Alice's problem was. "I thought they were so big and scary, I always made sure to stay away from them. "
" What changed that?" Fiona asked, surprised by her sister's confession.
" Megan,"was the simple answer.
Jody turned her head and peeked up, seeing her lover's blue eyes looking down at her with an expression of pure love and devotion.
Alice saw the interaction between the two women and suddenly experienced a feeling of loss. One only had to look at Sam and Jody to see the love that flowed between them. The expression on their faces when they looked at each other did not need any explaining. And again Alice realized how completely alone she was. She cast down her gaze and swallowed hard, feeling the tears stinging in the back of her eyes.
" How?"Fiona's voice penetrated her painful thoughts.
" Well, Megan had been riding ever since she was a kid. When we became...friends, she wanted to share that passion with me, " Jody explained, feeling Sam chuckle because of her choice of words. She playfully pinched the taller woman in the arm and continued her story. " I didn't want to disappoint her, so I decided to give it a try. After a little while my fear was gone and I even started to like them."
" Good on ya, sis,"Fiona grinned. " You are a credit to the McDonnell clan. "
Jody looked at her youngest sister and pulled a face. A quick look at Trishia and Lucy told her it was time to have a talk with Alice.
Fiona immediately noticed the silence and the eye contact between the adults and when she looked at Alice she winked and rolled her eyes, making the blond girl smile.
" We already talked about it,"she calmly explained.
" Talked about what?"Lucy carefully asked.
" The fact that you girls will ask Alice to stay here, because Trishia's place is the size of shoebox," Fiona answered matter-of-factly. " And it's not like she has a choice, you know. But I think it's cool she will stay here. Murrook Farm is a great place. "
Lucy stared at her sister with murderous eyes, not knowing whether to be angry or amused. When she looked at Trishia she saw the twinkle in her eyes and Sam was biting her lip in order not to laugh.
The expressions on Jody's and Joan's faces were almost identical. They both looked at Fiona with a mixture of dismay, admiration and surprise.
" Well,"Trishia's calm voice finally broke the silence. " Thank you for the update, Fiona. But I would like to hear this from Alice as well. "
She focussed on the blond teenager who looked very uncomfortable, like she wanted to jump up and run.
" Alice? " Trishia asked. " I will leave it up to you. It's your choice."
From the corner of her eye, Trishia saw Fiona open her mouth to say something, but with a look of warning she silenced the dark haired girl. Fiona's mouth snapped shut and inwardly Trishia rejoiced. The look she had given her, always had the same effect on Lucy as well.
Alice twisted the hem of her T-shirt in a knot to hide the trembling of her fingers. A voice in the back of her mind kept yelling at her to take the chance she was being offered. But a feeling of dread and fear threatened to take over.
" I..if it's not too much trouble, I'd like to stay here,"she whispered, barely audible and afraid to look up.
" It's no trouble at all, Alice, " Jody's voice assured her with warmth. " We're happy to have you here."
" Welcome to Murrook Farm,"Sam added with a smile.
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To be continued in part 5
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