The grass was still damp from the cool night air, when a slender figure quietly made its way up the hill. Hidden from view strong legs slowly, but determinedly carried a muscular body closer to the house on top of the hill. It was unusually quiet and it was obvious that the occupants of the house were still asleep. The blinds that covered the bedroom windows were closed and there were no signs of life on the veranda or in the adjacent kitchen area.
Eyes that shone with anticipation scanned the area in search of the dog and located the canine fast asleep in his usual spot close to the door.
The figure knew the dog could wake up at any moment and sound the alarm, so the front of the house was given a wide berth. There was no sound when the feet of the intruder carried its body to the back of the house, making soft imprints in the grass.
With unerring accuracy the prowler approached the bedroom window. Carefully looking around, the coast still appeared to be clear.
A hand reached out and touched the wood of the blinds that had already started to feel warm due to the steadily rising early morning sun.
A contended grin showed a flash of white teeth when slender fingers reached underneath the blind to slowly pull it open.
It was time for some action.
For the sixth time in ten minutes Joan McDonnell cast a look at the clock that adorned the kitchen wall and that was providing a steady, rhythmically background sound of soft ticking. It was the only sound she heard, since the house was still bathed in silence.
With a frown Joan looked at the coffee that had been fresh almost an hour ago, but that slowly started to look like it was getting stronger and darker by the minute. Maybe she should pour it in the sink and make a fresh pot. She knew Sam appreciated a fresh cup of coffee in the morning.
With a sigh Joan decided to wait until she heard some signs of life. What if she did make a fresh pot and the girls did not show up for another hour? That would be a waste. No, she would wait for the girls to get up.
Joan carefully rubbed the side of her face where a big, purple bruise had left a painful mark. It was a visible reminder of her ordeal the previous day. She shivered when, again, she realized what could have happened if Alice had not shown up. She could have become a little newspaper article in The Gold Coast Bulletin.
Woman mugged and stabbed to Death in parking garage.
"Thank God for Alice," Joan whispered from the bottom of her heart.
Sipping her third cup of coffee, Joan opened the kitchen door and stepped outside on the veranda. It was a little after nine oclock and still early, but the earth was already warming up. Joan cast a look at the clear, blue sky and did not need to hear a meteorological forecast to know that it would be another hot day.
And the girls were sleeping the morning away, she realized. It was not something they did on a regular base. She knew Jody and Sam usually got up early.
"Well, maybe they like sleeping in this Saturday. What do you think, boy?" she mused, scratching a happy Kurt behind his ears.
The dog cheerfully wagged his tail and jumped off the veranda, looking for a stick. Maybe the soft smelling human would play with him, since his favorite one was still not around.
Joan smiled when the Shepard tried to scramble back up the stairs, with a stick that was so big, he almost toppled over by the sheer weight of it.
"I am afraid I wont be able to throw this one, Kurt," she chuckled. "Lets find another one, alright?"
Joan set down her cup on the table and walked down the stairs, followed by an enthusiastic dog, who was thrilled to have finally found somebody who would play with him. It was not hard to find a stick that was more suitable for the pup and with an experienced move, Joan threw the stick away. Not able to contain his happiness, Kurt ran after it and got hold of the wood as soon as it touched the ground. While the stick was firmly clenched between his healthy teeth he started to vigorously shake his head, which made Joan laugh out loud.
"Make sure its dead, before you return it, boy," she grinned.
"Are you teaching the dog bad manners, mom?" a youthful voice suddenly called out and startled Joan turned around.
"Good morning, honey," she greeted Jody with a warm smile. "I didnt hear you come out. Want some coffee?"
"Sure," Jody returned the smile and watched her mother climb back on the veranda, while Kurt looked at her retreating back with a sad expression in his brown eyes. That was a short game.
"Morning, mom," Jody greeted her mother with a hug. "How is your face? Did you have a good sleep?"
"I slept like a log, thanks, honey," Joan answered, giving Jodys shoulders a loving squeeze. "I was completely knocked out and I am glad, because I feel a lot better already. No headache."
Together they walked back into the kitchen and Jody gestured for her mother to sit down.
"You might want to make a fresh pot, Jody. That one has been sitting there for more than an hour already."
Jody pulled a face and poured the steaming liquid down the sink.
"Yes, we are late today," she casually remarked, trying to come up with a way to tell her mother about everything that had happened during the night. She knew they would have to tell her something, since Lucy and Trishia were at the guesthouse and could make an appearance any time soon.
Jody quickly started a fresh pot of coffee and after pouring herself a glass of orange juice, she sat down at the kitchen table, across from her mother.
"Whats up?" Joan calmly asked.
A pair of startled green eyes immediately looked up and Joan smiled when she saw Jodys look of surprise. She reached out her arm and covered Jodys hand with her own.
"I know you, daughter-mine. To me your face often is an open book. I know you want to tell me something and I have the feeling I am not going to like it."
Jody sighed and shook her head, seeing the growing worry on her mothers face.
"Is it about Alice?" Joan quickly asked, aware of the feeling of dread that slowly started to creep into the pit of her stomach.
"Yes, it is," Jody truthfully answered. "The poor kid."
Those last three words took away a little of Joans concern. At least it did not sound like Alice had done something drastic, like running off in the middle of the night.
"What is it?" Joan quietly asked.
In a soft, but controlled voice, Jody told her mother about Trishias and Lucys presence in the guest house and the reason they were there. When she informed Joan about the girl that had been murdered and the picture they had found on the body, Jody could see her mothers face turn pale.
Joan swallowed hard and tried to push away the image of Alices body, lying in the sand, with a fatal stab wound to the chest. Tears stung the back of her eyes when she realized that Trishias gut feeling and concern for the teenager might have very well saved Alices life. If the tall policewoman had not decided to do something controversial and take Alice with her...
Involuntarily Joan shivered when she slowly became aware of the seriousness of the situation. Her fingers nervously tried to find something to do. In the past she had the habit of turning around her wedding ring when she was nervous, but that piece of jewelry had been removed when she had left David McDonnell and the ring finger on her right hand had been bare ever since.
Jodys warm hands covered the fidgeting fingers and when Joan looked up she saw the determination in her daughters green eyes.
"We will all do our utmost to keep her safe," she promised. "But until we all can sit down and talk about how we are going to accomplish that, the girls are not supposed to know. We dont want to scare them."
Jody pulled a face and couldnt help smiling.
"Of course Fiona saw straight through me last night," she told her mother. "She can be such a brat sometimes."
"And you are not exactly a good liar, honey," Joan answered. "Which, of course, is to your credit."
"Thanks," Jody dryly replied.
She looked up when she heard a sound behind her and two large, warm hands were placed on her shoulders.
"Hey, sweetie," Sams voice rumbled in her ear and a soft kiss was placed on her cheek. "Good morning, Joan," Sam greeted her mother-in-law, while her clear blue eyes quickly studied the older womans face.
Sam noticed the lines of worry that were etched around her eyes, but she also saw that the swelling on the side of her face had gone down and that pleased her immensely.
"Your face looks a lot better, Joan," Sam smiled, pulling out a chair and sitting down next to Jody. "The bruise is still there of course, but it doesnt look as swollen as it did yesterday."
Joan carefully touched her face and smiled at the tall blond woman.
"I am glad," she sighed. "I had a good rest last night, but it seems to me that I was the only one. Jody just told me we have other worries at the moment."
Sam nodded and put one arm around the back of Jodys chair, so her fingers could lightly graze the red-haired womans shoulder.
"I am afraid so," Sam confessed. "Its still hard to believe how quick we went from living our happy lives, to having to be on the look out for a murderer. It boggles my mind and to be honest, it pisses me off as well."
Jody cast a look at Sam and reached over to softly stroke her face.
"I understand, baby. Just be careful around Alice, she... I noticed last night she is very insecure and if she would pick up on your anger, she might think its directed to her."
"I will be careful, honey, thanks for the warning," Sam smiled and quickly stole a kiss. "Talking about teenagers, where are ours?"
"Still asleep I guess," Jody answered, she stood up to pour them a fresh cup of coffee. "It was a short night for them as well."
The look in Sams eyes made her stand still immediately though and a feeling of dread settled in the pit of her stomach.
"Sam?" she whispered, seeing her lovers face gone pale.
"I... just walked passed their rooms and the doors were open, but the girls were not inside," Sam breathed. Then the reality of her words sank in and she jumped up, knocking over the kitchen chair in the process.
"When did you get up, mom?" Jody asked a shocked Joan.
"A little over an hour ago," Joan answered with a trembling voice. "I havent seen or heard... .oh, my God!"
Sams face was a grim mask when she slid her cell phone out of her pocket and speed dialed Trishias number.
"Ill call Trish and then I will go out to look for them. I will take Kurt with me," she announced, waiting for the policewoman to answer the phone. "Honey, I want you and your mom to stay inside and lock the doors. Dont open them for anyone, unless Trishia or I are here."
Jody opened her mouth to protest because she did not want her partner to go out by herself but before she could say anything, she realized Sam was right. Somebody had to stay with Joan at the house. So Jody merely nodded while her thoughts went back to that horrible day when Sam had gone out, by herself, to meet Megans kidnappers. Never in her life had Jody been more scared. Sam had kept contact through a cell phone, but in the end, while meeting the criminals, she had to leave the thing in the car, breaking off all contact. The hour that had followed had been the longest one in her life and she had hoped never to go through a situation like that again. Unfortunately her family seemed to have a talent of attracting trouble and here they were again, faced with a dangerous situation that could turn disastrous at any moment.
Jody let out a deep sigh and ran her fingers through her unruly hair. Where in the name of everything that was sacred were Fiona and Alice?
"No, Sam, wait for me," Trishia urged, rubbing her eyes and trying to wake up. "I will be up there in a minute. Stay where you are. If there are any tracks or clues, I dont want them to be trampled on. I am on my way now!"
Trishia pressed the off button on her phone and jumped out of bed, blindly reaching for the clothes that had ended up in different places when she... when Lucy had taken them off a few hours ago.
"What is going on?" Lucy sleepily asked, seeing the grim expression on Trishias face.
She had started to get dressed herself, knowing that something serious had happened at the house and she wanted go to her family as soon as she could.
"Trish?" she asked again, the worry evident in her voice.
The policewoman turned around to look at her lover and a sad expression crossed her face.
"Fiona and Alice are missing from the house," she answered, knowing that sugarcoating the news was not an option at the moment.
"Oh, God," Lucy breathed, bringing her hand to her throat. Her dark green eyes looked at Trishia in shock. "How long?"
"They just found out," Trishia said, quickly tying her shoelaces. "They have been gone for more than an hour, at least. Are you ready?"
Lucy nodded and tried to push down the feeling of nausea that threatened to overtake her. There was a murderer around and now her sister and Alice were missing. Her eyes nervously darted from Trishias pale face to the strong hands that were quickly and expertly checking her gun.
Lucy swallowed hard. She knew that in Trishias line of work, fire arms were sometimes needed, but it was something she was still not used to. The idea that the relatively small device could end a persons life in less than a few seconds filled her with fear. Lucy could only hope and pray that Trishia would not have to use the weapon.
A year ago, her lover had shot one of Megans kidnappers and Trishia had been devastated by it. She knew there had not been a choice, since Steven Hayes was about to take Sams life, but still, it had been very hard on the policewoman and Lucy hoped they would never have to go through something like that again.
The subject of her thoughts looked at her and managed a weak smile.
"Are you ready?" Trishia asked, reaching out a hand that was gratefully accepted.
"Yes, lets go up," Lucy encouraged in a subdued voice.
"Stay close to me," Trishia ordered, putting her body between her lover and the line of dense trees across the clearing.
Her eyes scanned the environment, looking for anything that was out of the ordinary, but to Trishia everything looked normal. When they were halfway up the driveway a happily bouncing dog greeted them and Trishia could not help smiling. She petted the dog on its head and briefly wondered why Kurt had not raised the alarm. She had no time to ponder about that, because the door was opened and Sam emerged. The two women looked at each other and a silent message passed.
"Go inside, Lucy," Trishia softly said. "Lock the door behind you, okay?"
Lucy did not answer immediately, but she nodded and squeezed the warm hand that was still holding her own.
"Be careful," she whispered, feeling the wetness pool in her eyes.
"Always," Trishia answered with a smile, bending her head to give her lover a quick kiss.
As soon as the dark haired woman had closed and locked the door behind her, Trishia looked at Sam and gave her a curt nod.
"I take it you checked out the bedrooms?"
"I did," Sam answered. "Nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. The girls are just not there and it seems like they have left the house through Fionas bedroom window."
Trishia took a moment to digest the information, which only increased her anxiousness. They had assumed that the murderer worked alone. But what if he didnt? How could two teenage girls disappear from the house, without making a sound? The only explanation Trishia could come up with was that there must have been more than one intruder. Or, the girls had known the person and had left voluntarily.
With a gesture that showed her frustration, Trishia rubbed the back of her neck. Part of her wanted to call the police station and ask for assistance, but deep down inside a nagging feeling of doubt made itself known. She could not put her finger on it yet, but hopefully a look around the place would help her. She needed more information, before she could call for help.
"Lets have a look at the outside of that window," she suggested. "Are we taking Kurt?" she asked, pointing to the leash Sam was holding.
"Yes, I am sure he will be able to pick up a scent and track," Sam answered with confidence. She whistled and immediately Kurt came bouncing off the veranda.
Sam scratched his ears and attached the leash to his collar.
"Come on boy," she said, walking towards the back of the house where Fionas and Alices bedrooms were located.
Trishias experienced eyes looked at the ground, searching for visible tracks or footprints. It was obvious that Sam was right, the girls had left the house through Fionas bedroom window. The blinds and the window itself were open and the grass underneath the window was trampled on. But there were no signs of a struggle or other proof of violence.
With her face set in a grim mask, Sam looked down at her dog that had picked up on the tension and patiently sat down next to his human, waiting for a command. She cast a look at Trishia, who had sucked in her bottom lip and nodded.
"Kurt, track," Sam ordered, immediately seeing the ears perk up. "Track Fiona, Kurt."
With a high pitched whimper, the dog pulled the leash, almost making Sam lose her balance. His nose had already picked up Fionas scent, along with two other fragrances and immediately he started to guide the two women away from the house, down the gradual slope at the back of the house, towards the dense vegetation that was located at the bottom of the hill.
Sam and Trishia did not speak. They were both absorbed in their own thoughts, but in the meantime, all their senses were on heightened alert. They were very aware of their surroundings and Trishia could not ignore the cold steel that was pressing against the skin of her back.
The policewoman was mentally kicking herself for not being able to protect the family that she had come to look upon as her own. What if something had happened to Alice and Fiona? She knew she would never be able to look into Lucys eyes again if something had happened to her youngest sister.
And what would she tell Carol Wong? How could she explain that the girl she had been assigned to protect had disappeared? If anything happened to the girls, Trishia knew she would never be able to forgive herself.
The two women had reached the tree line and silently followed the dog that exactly seemed to know where he was going. He kept on a steady pace and did not hesitate or falter, not even for a second.
They were still walking downhill and slowly but surely, the track became more difficult to follow. The hillside became steeper and the forest floor was littered with rocks and broken tree limbs. The undergrowth was dense and sometimes hard to walk through and both Trishia and Sam let out an occasional gasp of pain, when branches or sharp thorns scratched their bare legs.
In the distance they could hear the sound of running water and Sam knew they were approaching one of the creeks that ran through their property.
Suddenly Kurt started to whimper and pull his leash, trying to free himself from the restraints that kept him close to his leader.
Trishia and Sam exchanged a look and with growing nervousness, Sam noticed that Trishia had pulled out her gun. The policewoman shrugged her shoulders and sent her friend an apologetic look. She knew the sight of the weapon would bring back bad memories to the blond woman, but Trishia did not want to take any risks. She had no idea who and what they would encounter and she wanted to be prepared.
She signaled to Sam to follow her and carefully made her way through the bush. Their view was obscured by trees and shrubs, but she knew they were close to the creek now. She could hear the water dance across the rocks and in the distance she heard the distinct sound of a small waterfall.
Trishia cast a look over her shoulder and saw that Sam was right behind her. She gestured for the tall woman to get down and they both crawled towards some huge ferns that were the only barrier left between them and the creek.
Sam silently cursed when a sharp rock embedded itself in her right leg and a sharp pain shot through her knee. Without looking down at the affected limb, she knew she had a cut that was bleeding. She could feel the warm, thick liquid slowly slide across her skin.
She lowered herself flat to the ground, next to Trishia who was carefully pushing aside the fern, to get an unobstructed view of the creek. The only sound was that of the water in the stream and the rustling leaves overhead.
When they were finally able to see what had excited and alarmed Kurt, they were both stunned. A few meters away from them, they saw the familiar bodies of Fiona and Alice, stretched out on the forest floor next to the creek. They were lying on their stomachs with their heads resting on their arms and looked like they were asleep. The only indication they werent, was Fionas left foot that was rhythmically moving from left to right and back again.
Sam was about to jump up and ran towards them, but Trishias hand on her arm stopped her. When Sam glanced aside, she saw the relief on the policewomans face and a twinkle of amusement in her green-blue eyes.
"Look," Trishia whispered, pointing to the bank of the creek.
Sams eyes obediently traveled into the direction Trishia was pointing out to her and when her brain registered the scene that was unfolding she was so relieved, she almost felt dizzy.
"Yarra," she whispered.
A tall, dark skinned girl, clad in shorts and a tank top was sitting cross legged on the bank of the creek. Her big, dark eyes were focused on a small animal that was sitting close to her. Yarra was holding something in her hand, patiently waiting for the small animal to come over and grab it. Sams eyes widened when she saw the little wallaby that was sitting so close to the girl, she could almost touch it.
"I dont know whether to be angry or happy," Sam whispered, seeing a flash of white when Trishia grinned.
"I am extremely happy, Sam," the policewoman admitted. "But I will not show them that. They scared the crap out of me!"
Sam chuckled and watched in amazement when the small animal hopped closer to Yarra, grabbed the treat she was holding in her outstretched hand and quickly hopped away with it again.
Yarras dark skinned face was split by a huge smile and even from the distance they could see the sparkle in her eyes.
"Wow, that was cool, Yar," Fionas voice broke the silence while the teenager scrambled to her feet, followed by Alice who seemed very impressed. "Dont you think so, Alice?"
The blond teenager nodded and when she spoke, Sam and Trishia could hear the wonder in the soft voice.
"Thanks for showing me that, Yarra," she said. "That was awesome. I never saw a wallaby that close."
"I know something else that will be awesome," Sam mumbled. "Lets get those girls home, Trish. There are three frantic women waiting for them."
Before Trishia could respond, Sam rose to her feet and unfolded her tall frame. The three teenage girls, who had no clue they were being watched jumped when all of sudden Sam appeared and Alices first reaction was to run.
Trishia had anticipated a move like that and with a few long strides she was behind the girl and caught her in a pair of strong arms.
"Its okay, Alice," she tried to reassure the girl. "Its just Sam and me."
Trishia could feel the girl tremble and a pair of fearful eyes looked up at her. When Alice finally realized who was holding her, she let out a shaky breath. At the same time her legs seemed no longer able to carry her and slowly Trishia lowered the girl to the ground.
"Damn!" Trishia mumbled.
"I am sorry, Alice," Sam apologized, kneeling next to the girl. "I didnt mean to scare you like that."
"Yeah, well, that was a nasty thing to do," Fiona admitted, kneeling on the other side of Alice and shooting Sam an annoyed look.
"Listen to me, young lady," Sam answered with barely controlled anger. "Do you have any idea how worried everybody is about the two of you? What the hell were you thinking sneaking out of the house like that, without telling anyone where you were going? I thought you were more responsible."
Fiona had never seen the usual calm Sam, that angry and she visibly paled. Anger blazed in Sams eyes and unconsciously Fiona moved closer to Trishia. She swallowed hard and with confusion written all over her face she looked from the policewoman to Sam and back again.
"I..I..It was... everybody was still asleep and since it had been such a weird night, we didnt want to wake anybody up. Yarra came by to ask me if I wanted to see the wallaby and... I thought Alice would like to see it as well, so... I didnt mean to worry anyone. I am sorry," she ended in a whisper and Trishia could see the tears in the dark green eyes.
Sam let out a shaky breath and cast a look at the slender girl, who was standing close, watching her with big, dark eyes.
"Is this about that murderer?" the dark girl asked in innocence.
Yarra had met Trishia on different occasions and knew she was a police officer. When she had seen Sam and Trishia appear and had noticed their anxiousness and anger, she had put two and two together.
"What murderer?" Fiona slowly asked. Suddenly the events of the previous night started to make sense and her eyes widened in shock.
"It was on the news this morning," Yarra explained, her intelligent eyes scanning Trishias face for clues. "A girl was murdered on the beach yesterday."
Trishia and Sam exchanged glances and the tall blonde could feel the anger drain from her body, leaving her sore and tired.
"I guess wed better go back to the house, so we can talk about it. Alright?" Trishia suggested, taking the lead.
Sam silently nodded and rose to her feet, wincing when she felt a cramp in her right calf. She looked at Fionas bent head and suddenly felt bad for having snapped at the teenager before.
"Come here," she said, pulling the teenager in a hug.
Fiona accepted the loving gesture and buried her face against Sams chest, while she wrapped her arms around the blondes waist.
"I am sorry, Sam" she sniffed, feeling guilty for worrying the woman whom she adored.
"Its okay, sweetie," Sam sighed. "I am just happy you and Alice are alright. Lets go home, okay?"
"I will call the girls," Trishia said, pulling out her cell phone. "Let them know that everybody is okay."
It had been a tense thirty minutes. Neither Joan nor Jody or Lucy talked much. They were all lost in thought and knew they all shared the same kind of anxiety. They sat around the kitchen table, nervously sipping coffee, which did not help to eliminate their anxiety.
When the sound of a ringing telephone shattered the silence, they all jumped and both Joan and Lucy looked at Jody with a mixture of dread and hope.
Jody quickly picked up the phone and almost breathlessly said her name.
"Hey, Jody," Trishia voice sounded. "We are on our way back, with the girls. Apparently Yarra stopped by this morning to pick them up for some wallaby watching."
"Oh, thank God," Jody exclaimed, while she let herself sink back in her chair. "I... wow, I am so relieved. I guess well see you soon, huh?"
"Yup," Trishias voice answered and Jody could hear the amusement. "The girls are dragging their feet, but we will chase them back up the hill. See you in a few."
Jodys reaction had been clear enough to let the other women know that Fiona and Alice were alright and when she put down the phone, she could see tears in her mothers eyes, while Lucys face was a mixture of relief and annoyance.
"What happened?" the dark haired woman asked.
Jody leaned over towards her mother and grabbed her hand, giving it a loving squeeze.
"I dont know the details, but as I understood, Yarra stopped by this morning to pick up the girls so they could watch wallabies, or something."
"They what?" Lucy shouted, rising from her chair and pacing the kitchen floor. "Are they insane? My goodness, I really thought Fiona would have more sense than that!"
"Calm down, Luce," Jody said, sending her mother a watery smile. "Dont forget the girls dont know anything about what is going on. If Fiona would have known why we are all so worried, she would not have left the house, I am sure."
"She could at least have left a note, or something," Lucy mumbled, recognizing the truth for what it was, but still a little miffed at her youngest sister. "She scared the bejeezus out of me."
"Actually," Jody responded, trying very hard to keep a straight face. "When you think about it, its pretty funny."
"Funny my a... ," Lucy cast a look at her mother and swallowed hard. "My butt! I hardly slept last night and I really wanted to casually wake up and... well, you know, not have stress."
Jody, who could guess what was on Lucys mind just laughed when she saw the frustration on her sisters face. She knew that her sister and Trishia treasured their time together and she knew it often happen that the policewoman had to sacrifice her time off. Sensitive as she was, Jody had felt the subtle changes in the way Trishia and Lucy treated each other and she just knew that Lucys plans for that morning had not involved spending time with her family. But since their mother was present, Jody decided not to tease her sister about it. That is why Joan McDonnells remark came as a shock.
"You and Trishia can have a roll in the hay, later, honey," she said. "I will make sure everybody will leave you two alone. I am just grateful that your sister and Alice are unharmed."
Lucy was shocked into silence and looked at her mother with big, green eyes. It did not happen often, but she could not think of a thing to say and when her gaze traveled to Jody, her sister lost all control. Jody hid her face behind her hands and her body shook with laughter. It was just too funny. The look on Lucys face was priceless.
Of course Jodys outburst of laughing was also a way to get rid of the tension. The sense of relief had left her giddy and her mothers remark towards Lucy had just been what she needed to get a good laugh and get rid of some of the tension that had been building up inside since the previous night.
It took her a few minutes, but eventually Lucy regained her composure and her own sense of humor kicked back in.
"Well, mom, you are full of surprises," she sighed. "Here I am trying to hide the fact that I have a love life and then you come around, saying things like that."
"I am not blind, dear," Joan calmly replied. "Love and sex are a part of life. I am just really grateful that you met Trishia. She is good for you. You seem happy."
"Um... well... I am," Lucy uncharacteristically stammered.
Joan smiled and stood up from her chair to walk to the kitchen counter.
"Id better make some tea, I am sure the girls will need some."
"You are right, mom," Jody responded, winking at her sister. "I guess I will set the table. I dont know about you, but I am hungry and a big breakfast sounds really great at the moment. How about eggs and crumpets?"
It had taken the small group not long to find their way through the dense forest. Silently Trishia lead the way, with Sam forming the rear. She had freed Kurt from his leash and the dog was having a great time chasing birds and lizards. His antics made the girls giggle and Yarra had given in and played Kurts favorite game: fetch. She threw a stick as far as the shrubs and trees would allow and every time the Shepard returned the object within a matter of seconds.
Yarra loved animals and her biggest dream was to, one day, become a veterinarian. Her father, George Kirby was a descendent of Australias original inhabitants and he had instilled his children with love and respect for nature. From the moment they could walk, he used to take Yarra and her siblings on camping trips and taught them everything his own father had taught him and his brothers.
Her mother, Susan Kirby was a nurse at the local hospital and a woman who adored her husband and children. Together George and Susan had fought their share of battles against the discrimination and prejudice that was still a part of society. Her own parents had disowned Susan when she decided that George was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. It had left its scars, but both Susan and George were proud of what they had accomplished: a long, committed relationship, in which they had raised three children, who treated all people they encountered with respect and dignity.
As soon as the Kirbys had learned they had new neighbors, the whole family had showed up to welcome Jody and Sam and from that first moment on, a strong friendship had started to develop.
To Sam and Jody it was no secret that the Kirby children roamed their property, but they did not mind. In fact, they welcomed it. The Kirbys, who owned a large plot of land adjacent to their own property, showed respect for all creatures and on more than one occasion, Yarra had brought home a wounded animal to nurse it back to health again.
Yarra glanced over her shoulder and saw the scratches and cuts on Sams legs. Also she noticed the way Sam was limping, a painful expression on the tall blondes face every time she stepped onto an uneven surface.
"Are you okay, Sam?" she gently asked, feeling pity for her friendly neighbor.
"Never been better," Sam grunted, not without a trace of humor. "But Ill tell you, Yarra, I will be ecstatic after I will have had a shower, breakfast and some loving attention from my wife."
Yarra chuckled and held back, until she and Sam were walking side by side.
"I am sorry, Sam," she apologized with genuine regret. "I had no idea. I have sneaked up to Fis window before. Its like a game for us. But if I had known there were... things going on, I would have used the front door."
"We dont have a front door," Sam grumbled good-naturedly.
"Well, the kitchen door," Yarra giggled with a mischievous sparkle in her dark brown eyes.
Sam smiled at the girl who was now walking alongside her and again appreciated the teenagers beautiful features. One day Yarra Kirby would be a real head turner, of that she was convinced. The girl had just turned eighteen, but despite a two year age difference, she and Fiona were best friends. They were both exceptionally bright and together they were a force to be reckoned with. Especially when it came to getting themselves in trouble.
Sam could not help but notice the casual glances Yarra sent to Alice and inwardly she smiled when the dark girl looked like she was going to ask Sam a question.
"What?" Sam softly asked, making sure to keep her voice down.
"Um... ," Yarra cleared her throat and stared at a point in the sky. "Well, I was just wondering... where does Alice come from? I mean, its obvious shes no local. She seems kind of... frightened and lonely."
"You have sharp eyes, CJ," Sam complimented the girl, using the nickname Fiona had bestowed on her. "But I am afraid I cant tell you much about it. Maybe you could ask her yourself, huh?"
"Well, I might do that," Yarra mused, intrigued by sadness in the young blondes eyes.
"Good, she needs a few friends, Sam smiled, relieved to see the house appear on top of the hill. "Now, if I can only make this climb."
"Here they come," Lucy announced, staring out of the window. "I guess its safe to unlock the door now, huh?"
"Well, yeah," Jody responded. "I want them all inside. I am starving and I can only imagine what Sam must feel like. Look at that limp and oh... .honey," Jody sighed, seeing the scratches on the long legs.
When the small group had reached the veranda, the door flew open and before Fiona knew what happened, she was engulfed in a bear hug from her eldest sister.
"I am so glad you are alright, Fi," Jody whispered in her ear. "We were so worried."
"I am sorry, Jo," Fiona mumbled in a subdued voice. "We... I didnt know... I just didnt want to wake up anyone and.."
"Shh, " Jody shushed her. "You and Alice are here and you are safe. That is all that matters. Go inside and wash up, I bet you could use something to eat. We can all talk later."
"Oh, yeah," Fiona groaned, while the scent of freshly baked crumpets, bacon and eggs wafted from the kitchen door. "Food!!"
Jody smiled and pushed her youngest sister inside the door. She motioned Yarra to follow Fiona in and then found herself facing Alice. The teenager obviously did not know how to handle the situation. She could feel Jodys eyes resting on her, but did not dare to look up. Until she heard that gentle voice.
Alice swallowed and nervously moistened her dry lips. Her heart was beating fast and even though she knew Jody would never sent her away, the fear of rejection was impossible to suppress.
Slowly she lifted her head to look at the red haired woman and when she saw the honest compassion in those deep green eyes, she could feel her insecurities crumble.
"Are you alright?" Jody gently asked, reaching out a hand and brushing away a strand of long blond hair from Alices forehead.
Alice just nodded and swallowed again.
"I... We didnt mean to worry anyone," she mumbled off handedly.
"I know, "Jody answered, shooting a glance at Sam, who was standing behind Alice with an affectionate smile on her face. "You and Fiona didnt know we had reasons to worry. We will tell you about that later, okay? Go inside and wash up a bit, we will have breakfast first. Unless you are not hungry," Jody teased, remembering full well how Alice had devoured the food on her plate the previous evening.
A shy smile was the answer and the girl had disappeared inside the house, Jody stepped towards Sam and wrapped her arms around her tall partner. She lifted her face and captured Sams lips in a heartfelt kiss.
"Oh, baby, I am not complaining," Sam sighed when they broke apart. "But may I remind you there are three impressionable teenagers inside, who are probably looking at us right now with bulging eyes."
"I know Fiona couldnt care less," Jody answered, snuggling closer to Sams warm body. "Yarra will just love it and will take the opportunity to... learn at a distance." Jody could feel Sam chuckle and she smiled. "And Alice... well, somehow I think Alice will not make a big deal out of it either."
"Does that mean I can take you to our veranda love seat and make out?" Sam whispered in her ear.
"No, "Jody laughed, untangling herself from Sams arms. "At least, not now," she added with a wink. "First we will have breakfast."
"Thats a pity, Sam sighed, but there was a twinkle in her eyes. "But you are right, as usual. I sure need to eat, before I fall down."
Breakfast was a quiet, but not unpleasant affair. The three girls cleaned off their plates in record time and when Sam made a teasing remark about that, Fiona replied by saying that she always worked up an appetite after a bushwalk and that watching wallabies was hard work.
When everybody was finished eating Trishia and Sam exchanged glances and the blonde nodded. The policewoman took that as a cue and cleared her throat. Immediately the tension rose and three pairs of eyes looked at Trishia with a mixture of curiosity, fear and anticipation.
"I think we owe you three an explanation," Trishia started, feeling Lucys hand squeezing her knee in encouragement.
"Yes, you do," Fiona bluntly answered, which earned her an annoyed look from Lucy. At the same time Yarra elbowed her friend in the side and gestured for her to be quiet. But Fiona was not easily discouraged.
"What is all this... stuff about a murderer? And is that why you and Lucy stayed at the guesthouse? I mean, its terrible, but its not the first murder around here, so why does everybody jump in protection mode all of a sudden?"
"I will tell you as much as I can, Fiona," Trishia patiently started to explain. "But there might be a few things I cant disclose, alright?"
Fiona nodded and cast a look at Jody and Sam, who were sitting close together with a very serious expression on their faces.
"Is dad running rampant?" Fiona joked, trying to lighten the mood.
Yarra, who was just sipping her tea, almost snorted out the liquid and started coughing. Fiona helpfully patted her on the back, not able to hide the twinkle in her dark green eyes.
"Fiona McDonnell," Joan sighed, looking at her youngest daughter with tired eyes. "Would you please keep quiet and let Trishia talk? This situation is not something to joke about."
"Sorry," Fiona mumbled, casting down her eyes and all of a sudden feeling like a little girl.
Trishia looked at the bent head across from her and bit back a smile. She was still amazed at the similarities between her lover and Fiona. Two peas out of the same pod. Or pot, as Fiona always said.
"Okay, here is whats going on," Trishia started. "Last night, on my way home, I was called to the scene of a crime. Yarra told me it has been on the news already this morning, so I can safely tell you a young girl, probably around seventeen years of age, had been found stabbed to death on the beach in front of the Ocean View Gardens."
Trishia sighed deeply and took a sip of her coffee. She was well aware of the tension in the kitchen and of all the eyes that were glued to her face.
"Her identity is still not known and we believe she could have been a homeless girl."
"We have nothing to worry about then, so I guess you are keeping an eye on Alice," Fiona blurted out, but as soon as the words had left her mouth, she wished she could take them back. Again an elbow collided with her ribs and when she looked at Alice, she could see the girl was extremely pale, her blue eyes dark in her normally tanned face.
"Fiona, for once in your life, shut up!" Lucy snapped.
Trishia closed her eyes for a brief moment and gathered her thoughts. She was afraid that Fionas sharp mind and tongue would make it hard not to tell the girls all the information she had. And deep down inside she really did not want to do that. Alice was very vulnerable already. The skittish teenager could very well run away if she found out somebody with bad intentions was trying to find and harm her.
"I am sorry, Alice," Trishia could hear Fiona apologize. "I did not mean to be rude, I am really sorry."
Alice slowly nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. She liked Fiona and appreciated the girls honesty and sense of humor. But her words had hurt her deeply. Not because they were not true, because Alice knew she fitted into the homeless or runaways" category, but Fionas words had brought her down to reality with a big thump. After all the kindness and warmth she had experienced while being on Murrook Farm, she knew there would be a day she would be on her own again. And she was not sure whether she would be able to cope with that, not after her new friends had made her feel again.
Jody saw the emotions on Alices face and, empathetic as she was, she could almost feel the pain radiating from the slender form. She cast a look at Sam and when her partner sent her a warm, encouraging smile, Jody knew she had her support. She scooted closer to Alice and gently put a hand on one of the slumped shoulders.
"I promise you, Alice, if you decide you like this place, you are welcome to stay as long as you would like. As far as Sam and I are concerned, you are no longer homeless," she softly spoke, feeling the girls body tense for a moment and then relax.
Alice let Jodys words sink in and again she was startled by the warmth the small woman was able to instill in her. It was something unknown to Alice, but her soul welcomed it, because it tentatively soothed many of the painful scars on Alices heart. Secretly she basked in the affection that Jody seemed so eager to share.
Alice had roamed the streets for longer than she cared to remember. She had slept in sheds, parks, abandoned railway cars and many other places that were dark, cold, lonely and often dangerous. She had gone days without a decent meal and had bravely withstood the mockery from others. All that time, she had hardly shed a tear.
But from the moment she had arrived on Murrook Farm, something had changed and the blonde teenager had not figured out yet what it was that had so quickly crawled under her skin. But Jody had the power to make her cry with just a few kind words, or friendly gesture.
Again Alice could feel the tears burn and she did not dare to raise her head, afraid the others would see her weakness. So she simply nodded and her body involuntarily leaned a little closer to the red haired woman next to her.
"Ill think about it," she whispered, while her heart screamed Yes!".
"Fair enough," Jody smiled, shooting Sam a loving glance. "Shall we let Trishia finally talk? Fi?"
Fiona felt a blush creep up her cheeks and she desperately tried to avoid Jodys eyes. She knew there would be no anger in them and that was exactly what made her feel guiltier. At least Lucy or Sam would be angry and show it, but the way her eldest sister and mother dealt with her stupidities was far worse. They usually looked at her with a mixture of sadness, hurt and disappointment and always made Fiona feel like the worst daughter and sister in the universe. Not that she would ever admit that though.
"I will be as quiet as a mouse," she promised with a sigh, finally looking up to see the affection in a pair of eyes that were just a few shades lighter than her own.
She answered the smile that was sent her way and cast a look at the tall policewoman who had been patiently waiting and was glancing at her with a long-suffering look.
"Sorry," Fiona mouthed, feeling bad for having to apologize so many times during the last few minutes.
"As I was saying," Trishia dryly continued. "The girl that was found last night is probably homeless. We came to that conclusion because... " Trishia paused and hesitated for a moment. But then she decided that, at the moment honesty seemed to be the best policy and after taking another deep breath, she finished her sentence."... because there have been two similar murders in the last two years and both girls were runaway teenagers."
Yarra, who had been listening to the news that morning, had not heard about the other victims yet and her intelligent eyes met Trishias, who looked at her and nodded.
"If... the other girls were homeless as well, does... does... the murderer prey on them?" she hesitantly asked, casting a worried look at Alice. "It sounds like he... chooses them."
"We dont know yet," Trishia truthfully answered. "But you might have a point, Yarra. Maybe he does."
Alice nervously licked her lips and she remembered all the girls she had encountered during her years on the streets. She always moved from place to place, never staying around long and that had always prevented her from getting too close to other people. She had never made any friends, but she did remember a few girls, older than she was who had been kind to her and had selflessly shared their food or sleeping place. She hoped they would be alright.
"Were those murders committed around here as well?" Fiona asked with wide eyes, apparently forgetting that she had promised to be quiet. But her question was a valid one and again Trishia hesitated.
"No," she finally answered. "They were not committed around here."
Looking into the curious faces of Fiona and Yarra, Trishia felt she needed to give them a little bit more information.
"Sydney and Perth," she simply stated, deciding that was as much as she would give away.
She had not anticipated a reaction from Alice. The blonde teenager almost jumped out of her chair and clenched her hands into fists. Her eyes stared at a place in the distance and everybody could plainly see the horror in those clear blue depths. She was sitting completely still now. The only movement was the irregular heaving of her chest, caused by her labored breathing and the visible pulse point in her neck, which indicated her heart was racing.
The tanned skin of her face had lost all its color and the girl looked sickly pale. Perspiration formed small drops on her forehead and upper lip and it was like Alice was suffering from a bad fever, especially when she started shivering, which made Fiona jump up and yell at her sisters to do something.
Jody, who was still sitting close to the girl, carefully wrapped an arm around the trembling body, immediately feeling the tense muscles and clammy skin.
Without turning she knew Sam had also jumped up and was standing right behind her.
"Honey, could you please get a quilt or blanket?" she asked in a tense voice, immediately feeling Sams warmth disappear from her back. Running footsteps indicated that her partner was already on her way to the bedroom.
"What is happening, Trish?" Fiona almost cried.
"She is in a shock," Yarra answered, pushing back her chair and quickly walking towards Alice where she knelt down beside her, her fingers feeling the irregular pulse in Alices wrist. "If possible we should get her to the couch and put her feet up."
Trishia was already on her feet and quickly scooped up Alice into her strong arms, cradling the girl close to her chest like she was a baby. With a few strides of her long legs she walked into the living room, carefully lowering the girl down on the coach. She took the blanket from the startled Sam and covered the still trembling body, while Yarra had collected a few pillows and was busy stuffing them underneath Alices legs, so they would be elevated.
"I will call Lisa," Trishia announced, pulling her cell phone from her pocket and walking back to the kitchen.
"Who is Lisa?" Joan asked with a shaky voice, while her eyes never left Alice.
"A psychiatrist," Lucy answered in a subdued voice. "Who also happens to be Trishias ex."
TBC part 10
Return to the Academy
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