by Lois Kay
#4 in the Reef Series
The four-wheel drive slowly made its way up the steep hill. The numerous small rocks and potholes regularly rocked the Ford Escape violently, shaking its driver vigorously who now and then elicited a muttered curse.
The dirt road was narrow, treacherous and formed the only path to the top of the mountain, snaking across the steep rainforest-covered slope. The recent abundant rainfall had left its mark on the road and here and there parts of the track had been washed away by the raging waters.
“I must be insane,” Fiona McDonnell mumbled to herself, trying to avoid a particular pointed rock. She had no intention of getting stuck halfway up the mountain, especially not with a flat tire. “If I ever get off this mole-hill…alive, I’ll kick Sam’s shapely behind_”
Fiona gritted her teeth when the car suddenly drove over a large rock she was not able to avoid and let out a frustrated breath when she heard the tell-tale sound of one of her bags falling off the backseat.
“If that busted my camera, I’ll…I’ll…oh, never mind,” she added with rapidly growing irritation. “Good heavens, this is only going up. How could Sam invest in a place with a road like this? She must have been temporarily nuts. Unless she plans on a helicopter service to fly the guests to the top and back again.”
Carefully rounding another corner, Fiona let out a chuckle when her eyes noticed the sign on the side of the road.
“Kaiala [pr. ‘kye arla’ ],” she read the Aboriginal greeting. “Welcome indeed, oh you courageous traveler, who is still alive, but maybe not for long” she added with sarcasm.
In spite of the bad road, Fiona had to admit the part of the forest she was slowly traveling through, was absolutely beautiful. The lush bushes and trees alongside the road formed a huge wall of every shade of green imaginable and Fiona’s keen eyes took it all in, with approval and eagerness. She knew the rainforest was an easy subject to capture in pictures. The beauty was abundant and simply everywhere.
Fiona narrowed her eyes and smiled when she finally saw the gate of the resort loom up, half-hidden by a fern that boldly covered the wooden structure that was in dire need of some serious maintenance.
“Great. Almost there,” Fiona mumbled, blowing a strand of hair from her damp forehead. Even though the air conditioning in the car was on, the drive up the mountain had made her feel hot and sweaty and she was looking forward to leaving the car, stretching her legs and relaxing her hands that had been firmly holding the steering wheel for more than twenty minutes now.
A few minutes later, Fiona turned off the engine and released her grip on the wheel, wiping the sweaty palms of her hands on the khaki-colored shorts she was wearing.
“I wonder if there’s anyone up here,” she spoke aloud, opening the door of the car and getting out. She gratefully stretched her stiff body and took in a lung full of fresh forest air. Turning around, she cast a look at the small building that was identified by a sign as ‘ office’ and she wrinkled her nose. The building looked like it didn’t need much to collapse and again Fiona wondered why Sam had decided to invest her money in a project that needed so much work. But then, her sister-in-law had a fine nose for business, so, why argue with her? Even though the office was a dump, the forest itself was absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful.
“All right, McDonnell, get your butt in gear,” Fiona scolded herself. “You have two whole days to make this trip worth while. Better get started as soon as possible.”
Opening the backdoor of the car, Fiona pulled out two big camera bags that held all her equipment and purposefully strolled towards the small office building, where she knocked on the door, before stepping back a little.
Sam had told her that the manager of the resort would be around, but Fiona thought the place looked pretty desolated and she wondered if it had been such a good idea to drive up the mountain all by herself. She cast a look over her shoulder to make sure the car was still parked where she had left it, mentally calculating how long it would take her to reach the safety of the vehicle, when all of a sudden the door of the office was opened with a loud, screeching noise. Involuntarily, Fiona took another step back and her green eyes were wide when she looked at the person who had opened the door.
“G’day, can I help you?” a teenager, with thick blond hair that almost fell in his eyes, looked at her with unveiled curiosity and Fiona swallowed hard, trying to calm her racing heart.
“Hi,” Fiona finally greeted him, annoyed with herself for having lost her composure. “My name is Fiona McDonnell and I’m here to…”
“You’re the photographer,” the boy interrupted with a happy grin. He suddenly stuck out a hand and introduced himself. “I’m glad you’ re here. My name is Joshua Adams.”
“Nice to meet you, Josh,” Fiona smiled, already liking the lanky teenager with the charming smile. “Don’t tell me you are the manager.”
“Not really,” Joshua laughed, shaking his head. “I really like it here, but I can’t see myself running this place. I like the beach a lot better.”
“I guess sand has its own attraction,” Fiona grinned. Even when it does get into awkward places sometimes. “So, tell me Mr. Beach-bum, where can I find the manager?”
“See that track there?” Joshua pointed to a small path, carved between two trees. “Just follow it and you’ ll run into Robbie after about a hundred meters, I guess. I’d show you, but I was told to stay here. We’ re expecting some supplies,” he helpfully added.
Fiona nodded in understanding and looked at the track Joshua had pointed out to her. If the freshly cut strangler fig was any indication, the path was recently cleared and she wondered if Robbie was responsible for that.
“Watch out for the machete,” Joshua joked, as if reading her mind. “Make sure to make a lot of noise, if you don’t want to lose a limb.”
“Thanks,” Fiona replied with a wry chuckle. “See you later…I hope.”
“You bet,” Joshua grinned and he wished he could have accompanied the tall dark- haired photographer. She didn’t only look good, but she seemed funny as well.
With a sigh, Joshua Adams turned around and walked back to the small table in the corner of the office, where he let himself fall into a loudly protesting wooden chair. He picked up the book he had been reading and it only took him a few seconds to become captivated again by the well-written story.
Fiona carefully stepped over a small pile of freshly-cut branches and leaves, wondering if the track would lead her to one of the cabins that should be on the property. Sam had explained there were fifteen cabins scattered around, that were all in dire need of renovation and repair. But first, the grounds needed to be cleared and Fiona suspected that was exactly what Robbie was engaged in. Her suspicions were confirmed when her ears picked up the rhythmic sound of slashing, followed by the rustling of leaves.
Although the sounds seemed very near, it took her another five minutes before she finally felt she was close enough to call out, but all of a sudden the noise had stopped and Fiona frowned, looking at a sharp edged machete, that was laying on a pile of leaves. Standing still, her head cocked, her eyes searched the wall of green in front of her, while her ears tried to pick up a sound that did not belong to the forest. It was hardly audible, but Fiona’s hearing was well developed, and she slowly turned her head towards the regular breathing that seemed to come from behind her.
“I come in peace,” she joked, lifting both her hands and slowly turning around, puzzled by the actions of this Robbie that Sam hired. If the manager of the resort was strong enough to clear an overgrown path with a machete, surely he wasn’t afraid of her?
“Don’t shoot or stab me, all right?” she continued with a chuckle. “I’m still young and I do have some nice plans for the future. One of those plans involves shooting the pictures for the brochure Sam Stevens wants of this place.”
“Don’t move,” a low, husky voice suddenly sounded from behind a tree and Fiona’s head jerked up, while her heart pounded in her chest. Involuntarily her eyes traveled to the machete on the ground and she quickly estimated the distance that separated her from the sharp metal that could easily be used as a weapon.
“Don’t tell me I’m running into yet another murderous nutcase,” she mumbled. “What am I? A trouble magnet?”
“I don’t know about that,” the voice answered with a hint of amusement. “But there’s a snake right behind you.”
Fiona froze. She practically grew up in and around the rainforest and she was familiar with its venomous reptiles. Fighting the urge to wipe her sweaty palms on her cotton clad thighs, she stood stock still, almost afraid to even breath.
“What kind?” she whispered, her eyes nervously darting around.
“Pseudechis porphyriacus,” the voice calmly answered.
“Red-Bellied black snake,” Fiona whispered, swallowing hard. “What is it doing here?”
“Who knows. Looking for frogs? Besides, it probably is asking itself that same question about you,” the voice seemed to come closer, but Fiona did not dare to move or even turn her head. She felt drops of perspiration roll down her back and she hoped the snake would not be able to smell her fear.
“Don’t move,” the voice warned again. “Just…stay… where you are.”
“Easier said than done,” Fiona replied in a whisper. “I’m sweating so much I feel like a mini waterfall. Maybe if I stay here long enough I will create a river and drown it.”
“All right, walk this way now,” the annoyingly calm voice encouraged. “But slowly…very slowly. If you don’t scare it, it will leave you alone.”
Knowing the owner of the voice was right, Fiona decided to trust the stranger and slowly started to walk away from the snake, trying very hard not to run. She inched her way towards the place where, only moments before, the voice had sounded.
“All right, he’s gone,” the voice announced, audibly relieved. “It just took off in the other direction.”
“Thank goodness,” Fiona sighed, releasing a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding.
“Sorry about that,” the voice sounded, this time from beside her and Fiona turned, impatient to finally see the person she suspected had to be Robbie. “I think I might have disturbed him…or her. Hard to tell from where I was standing.”
“I’m sure it is,” Fiona chuckled.
The branches of a small bush were pushed aside and the first thing Fiona noticed was the sand-colored Akubra hat that was firmly planted on thick, brown hair that was tucked behind the owner’s ears. Fiona’s eyes only grew slightly wider when she took in the rest of the appearance.
“Are you Robbie?” she asked, mentally slapping herself for assuming Joshua had been referring to a man.
“Robin Adams, nice to meet you,” the woman in front of her replied, extending her hand in greeting.
“Fiona McDonnell. Thanks for saving my life.”
The woman laughed and Fiona immediately noticed the resemblance to the teenager in the office.
“I don’t think I did save your life, but you’ re welcome just the same. Red-bellies’s usually only attack when you provoke them. You’d have been all right, I just wanted to make sure.”
“I appreciate it,” Fiona smiled. “So, is Joshua your brother?”
“Ah, you’ve met him already? Yes, he is. My baby brother, to be exact, although, he doesn’t like it when I call him that.”
“He pointed me in the right direction,” Fiona explained. “I’m the photographer.”
“I thought as much,” Robin smiled, pointing at Fiona’s bags. “Need a hand with those?”
“No, thanks. I’m used to hauling them around. Sam told me the manager would be able to show me some good spots to take some pictures. Are you the manager?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Robin answered, taking off her hat to wipe her forehead, before planting it firmly back on her damp hair. Her hazel eyes took in the tall form of the photographer in front of her, amazed by Fiona’s youthful features. For some reason she had expected the photographer to be a lot older. Middle-aged…at least.
“How old are you?” she blurted, when curiosity got the better of her.
Fiona suppressed a sigh and the dark-green eyes in her freckled face turned a little darker. It was not the first time someone had a problem with her age. She knew she did look a lot younger than her actual age, which often annoyed her tremendously. She was tired of having to explain she really knew how to take a picture.
“Did you expect a middle-aged man in a safari outfit?” she asked, not able to hide the sarcasm in her voice, while her eyes looked at the smaller manager coolly.
Robin cast down her eyes and pressed her tongue against the inside of her cheek. She felt like a rebuked child, an emotion she didn’t like at all, especially not since it was evoked by someone who was obviously a lot younger than she was.
“I’m old enough to do this, all right?” Fiona sighed, after an uncomfortable silence. ” Just point me in the right direction and…”
“I’m sorry, Fiona,” Robin interrupted, raising her head and looking into a pair of hooded eyes. “I pissed you off and I’m sorry. It’s just that…yes, I did expect a middle-aged, cigar smoking bloke, dressed in a safari outfit. Guess I was wrong, huh?” she added with a wry chuckle. “The only thing Sam told me was that I could expect a photographer. That was all.”
“Next time I see her, I’ll kick her in the…you know where,” Fiona promised, her annoyance melting under the guilt-filled gaze of Robin. “Besides, you surprised me as well. I thought ‘Robbie’ was a guy.”
“Not this Robbie,” Robin answered dryly, making Fiona grin.
“Since this first meeting was very…unusual, how about a cold drink?” Robin suggested. “I sure can use one.”
“Sure, I’d like that,” Fiona readily accepted the invitation. “Did you hack this whole path down on your own?”
“Yup, I did and believe me, I’ ll feel it in the morning,” Robin sighed, rubbing a tired shoulder.
“I didn’t know managers had to do stuff like that.”
“They usually don’t, but the person who was hired to do this called in sick this morning and since I can’t afford to lose a lot of time, I decided to go ahead and start anyway.”
Robin had walked towards a knapsack, she had hung on the branch of a tree and motioned Fiona to follow her, which the photographer obediently did.
They followed a track, that had been hardly visible and after a few minutes the wall of green that had surrounded them opened up and to Fiona’s amazement they suddenly stood on the edge of a steep cliff. The view was breathtaking. As far as her eyes could see, Fiona saw nothing but hill-covered rainforest, forming a thick, lush, green carpet. Looking at the panorama gave her a sense of eternity, as if time no longer existed. It was a sea of living shades of green, a gem wrapped in the protective embrace of the clear blue sky and Fiona’s hands itched to get her camera and lenses out and capture the endless beauty that was splayed out in front of her.
“I wouldn’t mind building a little house right here,” she mumbled.
“I know what you mean,” Robins naturally husky voice sounded from behind her left shoulder. “I love this spot.”
Robin put her knapsack on the surface of a flat rock and pulled out two bottles of water, handing one to Fiona, who shot her a hesitant look.
“I don’t want to drink all your water,” she objected half-heartedly. The drive up the mountain had left her thirsty.
“Take it. There’s more where that came from, so you don’t have to feel bad,” Robin replied. “Besides, if I allow the photographer to dehydrate, Sam will kick my butt.”
“I doubt that,” Fiona grinned, gratefully accepting the bottle and uncapping it. “She’d say it’s my own fault.” Letting the cool water slide down her throat, she briefly closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation.
Leaning against a rock, drinking their water in comfortable silence, the women stared into the distance, both lost in their thoughts. Fiona’s eyes followed a bird that was gliding high in the sky, painting lazy circles against the endless blue.
“Grey goshawk,” Robin’s voice sounded and Fiona nodded, she had recognized the bird of prey as well.
“Twenty-one,” Fiona suddenly said, after taking another sip of cool water.
She cast a look at Robin Adams and softly chuckled when she saw the puzzled look on the other woman’s face. She could tell that Robin’s brain was busy trying to place the meaning of Fiona’s words.
“Your age,” she finally concluded, pleased when Fiona nodded.
“And don’t tell me I don’t look it,” Fiona mumbled.
“But you don’t,” Robin chuckled. “I really thought you were a lot a younger. Hey, a lot of women would take that as a compliment,” she added with a smile.
“Do you know how many times I had to show proof of my age, before some bartender would even consider giving me a beer?”
“That must have been traumatic,” Robin laughed, amused by the mischievous twinkle in Fiona’s eyes.
“It was,” the dark-haired photographer nodded. “The first time I was at The Fence, they almost didn’t let me in,” she exaggerated,
Robin’s brows rose into her hairline and she quickly took a sip of water to hide her surprise.
“The Other Side of the Fence in Brisbane?” she casually asked.
“Oh, you know the place?” Fiona grinned. “Yup. I have friends in Brisbane and they sometimes take me there. It’s great fun,” she added with a chuckle.
“I’ve studied there too,” Robin softly said, clarifying her knowledge about the popular gay bar in Brisbane. Her hazel eyes suddenly held a hint of sadness and Fiona frowned, feeling the urge to ask Robin Adams what had caused that brief, pain-filled look. But Fiona swallowed the question and shot Robin a warm smile.
“What did you study? Partying?” she joked, which had the desired effect, because Robin laughed and Fiona mentally patted her shoulder for bringing that charming smile back on the other woman’s face.
“No, it wasn’t anything exciting like that. I studied biology, with a special interest in conservation biology, to be exact.”
“No wonder Sam wanted you to have the job,” Fiona replied, with a hint of admiration in her voice. “She really wants this to be an environmentally friendly park, or whatever you want to call it.”
“It’s a great idea,” Robin nodded, taking off her hat and raking her fingers through her thick hair, unknowingly contributing to its disarray, much to Fiona’s amusement. “I’m glad she bought the land and not that…idiot from Southport,” Robin continued, her eyes suddenly ablaze with fire.
“I take it you don’t like Gerry Wilkins?” Fiona grinned, understanding Robin’s dislike. She had met the banker once and was anything but impressed by the pompous, arrogant man.
“No, I don’t,” Robin sighed, twirling her hat in her hands. “If it had been up to him, he’d have bought this mountain to turn it into one of his precious luxury resorts. Including helicopter platform,” she added with disgust.
“Sam wants a helicopter platform as well,” Fiona warned.
“I know, but that will only be for emergencies. Gerry Wilkins would fly all his guests up and down the mountain. Have you any idea how destructive that would be for the wildlife?”
“Hey, you’re preaching to the converted,” Fiona replied, holding up both hands in a defensive gesture. “I was very happy when Sam bought it away from under his nose. And she sure gained Yarra’s everlasting gratitude,” she chuckled, remembering the moment when an overjoyed Yarra had almost knocked Sam to the ground when she had hugged the tall blonde.
“My friend,” Fiona explained. “She grew up in the bush and right now she’s a vet. Just finished as a matter of fact.”
Robin cast a look at the soft expression on Fiona’s face and instinctively knew that Yarra was very important to the photographer. She let out a soft sigh when the tightly controlled longing unexpectedly reared its head, leaving her feeling sad and melancholic.
“Does she have a job yet?” Robin softly asked, knowing from experience how hard it could be to leave the safety of the university and step into the real world as a young professional.
“Right now she works at this clinic in Brisbane,” Fiona answered. “But I know she’d love to come back to this area though. She grew up around here and she loves the bush.”
“Yeah, I can relate to that,” Robin smiled. “I love this area and I don’t think I ever want to leave again.”
“Joshua says he liked the beach better,” Fiona grinned.
“I know and believe me, if things were going his way, he’d be there day and night.”
“Ah, well, the beach is close enough from here,” Fiona remarked, stretching her tall frame that was still a little stiff from her tense drive up the mountain. “Besides, I’m sure he can make himself useful around here, with all the chopping and stuff.”
“I’d rather have him in the office,” was Robin’s unexpected curt remark and Fiona frowned. What did she say wrong this time?
“Sure,” she drawled. “Whatever.” She reached down to pick up her bags and flung them over her shoulder. “Well, thanks for the water. I guess I’ll have a look around, so I’ll get a feel for the place.”
Robin Adams, you…fool.
Robin mentally slapped herself when she saw Fiona turn around and walk away. The photographer was not happy with her and she had every reason not to be. Robin knew she had not just been impolite, she had been plain rude.
Grabbing her knapsack she quickly followed Fiona, who had already disappeared in the thick wall of scrubs and ferns.
“I don’t think I’ll ever learn,” Robin mumbled, ducking to avoid a branch and hoping Fiona would stay on the track. It was narrow and hardly visible and if the photographer went the wrong way, she could easily end up at the very edge of another steep cliff, one that was hardly visible through the thick foliage.
Robin quickened her step when she realized that an unsuspecting person ran the risk of getting seriously hurt if they would slip and fall over the cliff’s edge.
Pushing away some branches, Robin ducked again and stumbled over a rock, flailing her arms to keep her balance and losing the knapsack in the process.
Softly muttering a curse, she bent down to pick it up, when all of a sudden she noticed a pair of legs, sticking out from under a bush. With a yelp she jumped back, stumbling over the same rock that had almost made her fall before and, with a loud thud, the back of her head collided with a tree.
For a moment Robin’s view was reduced to seeing stars and she blinked her eyes rapidly, trying hard not to pass out. Using the tree as a support she slowly sank to the ground and groggily shook her head to get rid of the dizziness. Only when her head cleared a little, she remembered the legs and with wide eyes she stared at the thick, rubber soles of a pair of hiking boots that quickly changed their position when their owner jumped up and stepped through the bush.
Robin’s eyes stared at the shoes and slowly traveled up a pair of long legs clad in khaki-colored shorts, until they finally met a pair of concerned dark-green eyes.
“What are you doing?” Fiona asked, kneeling down in front of Robin and casting the manager an inquisitive look.
Rubbing the back of her head, where she could feel a painful lump, Robin’s eyes shot daggers at the photographer.
“What am I doing?” she repeated, not even trying to hide the anger in her voice. “What am I doing? What the heck were you doing? You scared me half to death. If that’s your idea of a joke, I’m not amused.”
Only then Robin noticed the camera in Fiona’s hand and all of a sudden the photographer’s action made sense. With a groan she closed her eyes and silently wished the ground would open up, to swallow her whole, missing the mixture of amusement and concern in Fiona’s eyes.
“I’m sorry to have scared you,” the photographer apologized. “I just…I thought I saw a lyrebird and I wanted to snap a shot.”
“Did you get it?” Robin asked in a tired voice, her eyes still closed.
“Of course,” Fiona answered with a rakish grin, giving Robin a friendly pat on her knee. “Did you hit your head?”
Robin softly chuckled and opened her eyes, startled to see Fiona sitting on the forest floor in front of her.
“That’s a loaded question.”
“Depends on whom you’ re asking,” Fiona smiled. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of people who’ll tell you I’ve hit my head…lots of times,” she added with a grin.
Robin reflexively smiled back and grabbed her akubra hat that had tumbled to the ground when she had lost her balance.
“I owe you another apology,” she sighed. “That must be a record. We’ ve met, how long ago? Thirty minutes ago? This is my second apology already.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Fiona shrugged, extending a hand to help Robin back to her feet.
“But I do,” Robin replied softly, grasping Fiona’s hand and feeling herself pulled back onto her feet again, with a surprising amount of strength.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m very…sensitive, when it comes to my brother. I tend to…immediately jump into defense mode whenever I think somebody is criticizing him.”
“That’s not always a bad thing,” Fiona remarked.
“Maybe not, but in this case it was. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Fiona smiled, bending down to pick up Robin’s knapsack and handing it to the manager. “I’m sorry you hurt yourself. But sometimes, when I think I see a great shot, I kind of stop thinking and just act. You probably thought you’d found a dead body in the bushes, when you saw my legs stick out.”
“I have to admit it crossed my mind,” Robin grinned.
“Taryn, honey, stop torturing your brother,” Jody sighed, reaching across the dining-room table to relieve her daughter of the plastic spoon the toddler was using to hit her brother on his head.
Two year old Timothy McDonnell-Stevens looked at his mother with soulful blue eyes and Jody couldn’t help but grin.
“You two are quite the pair,” she chuckled, pushing away the strand of hair that almost fell in her eyes. “Just look at you two, there’s applesauce all over your faces. You’ re supposed to eat it, not use it as a facial mask,” she mumbled, using a napkin to clean Timothy’s cheeks, which made the toddler scrunch up his face in protest.
“Mama,” Taryn cried out, bouncing up and down in her high chair with sparkling green eyes. “Mama.”
“Mama will be home soon, sweetie,” Jody answered, cleaning her son’s hands. “You can give her a hard time then and I might even get some rest.”
“Poor honey, do you need to be rescued?” an amused voice sounded from the doorway, making Jody almost jump. A warm smile covered her face when she turned around to look at the tall blond woman who was standing in the doorway, casually leaning against the wall.
“Sam_ You’re home early_”
Samantha Stevens arched one eyebrow and cast her partner an inquisitive look.
“Is that a bad thing?” she asked, but Jody could see the twinkle in her eyes.
“It’s a wonderful thing, you goof,” she grinned, jumping up and walking towards her partner, who opened her arms in invitation. Jody didn’t need more encouragement. She threw her arms around Sam’s tall frame and immediately felt a pair of familiar hands slip around her waist. Letting out a sigh of contentment, Jody rested her cheek against Sam’s shoulder and briefly closed her eyes.
“Are you tired?” Sam’s voice tickled her ear, causing goose bumps to erupt in some very interesting places. Jody lifted her head and cast a look at her partner. Her green eyes shone with warmth and affection.
“Yes, I am,” she admitted. “But if you have an interesting proposal I’m all ears,” she added with a mischievous smile.
Sam’s blue eyes narrowed and she bent her head closer, so she could give Jody a quick kiss on the nose.
“An interesting proposal, huh? Let me think…,” she whispered, brushing her lips against her partners cheek. “Oh, I know something….” Sam pulled Jody closer and dropped a kiss on the top of her head.
“As soon as the rugrats are asleep, I’ll give you the best massage you’ ve ever had. You’ ll be so relaxed, you’ll be sleeping for the next four days.”
“Promises, promises,” Jody smiled against the fabric of Sam’s shirt. “But that massage sure sounds good though. By the way, how come you’ re home so early? Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”
“Well, I went by The Reef for that meeting I had scheduled, but Brian is doing a great job and there weren’t any problems to report. Everything is going very smoothly.”
“I’ve always known that Brian would make a great manager,” Jody mumbled, feeling her body relax in the warm embrace of her lover.
“He told me he learned from the best,” Sam replied, raking the fingers of her right hand through Jody’s thick, reddish hair.
“I’m just really happy he didn’t start looking for another job after he was shot in the lobby,” Jody yawned, remembering that dreadful event.
“Or after Martin Coles tried to blow up the parking garage,” Sam added with a soft sigh. “We sure have had some adventures, love. I’m glad those last few years have been peaceful and quiet.”
“As if,” Jody chuckled, lifting her head and kissing Sam’s chin. “Ever since our twins arrived, life has been a little hectic, honey.”
Sam grinned and cast a look at their two children, who were using the remnants of apple sauce on their plates to paint interesting figures on each other’s faces. She smiled and winked at Timothy, which earned her a broad smile from her son.
“Mama, look_” he cried proudly, waving his spoon around.
Sam winced, but couldn’t help laughing when the contents of his spoon flew through the air and landed squarely on the kitchen floor.
“Don’t look,” she warned her lover, pressing Jody’s face against her shoulder. “They’ re making a mess, but I’ll clean it up, all right? Why don’t you go outside, sit on the verandah, talk to Kurt for a while and in the meantime I’ll see if I can find our kids underneath all this gooey stuff. As soon as we’ re all clean, we’ll join you.” Sam kissed Jody’s forehead and sent her a questioning look. “How about it?”
Jody’s green eyes found Sam’s clear blue ones and for a brief moment the redhead allowed herself to be swept away by the loving gaze that was directed to her and again she realized what a wonderful partner and parent her lover was. Sam always seemed to know what Jody needed and her timing was perfect.
“I love you,” she said softly, using her fingertips to caress Sam’s face.
Sam smiled and gently grasped Jody’s hand, stilling it in its movement and pressing the fingertips against her lips.
“And I love you,” she smiled. “Come on, go outside and relax. I have this Terrible Twin Tornado Control down pat.”
Jody slowly pushed away from Sam’s tall frame, immediately regretting the loss of contact, but she smiled when she looked up at the blonde.
“Is that one of Fiona’s terms?”
“It is,” Sam confessed. “Your sister comes up with the most interesting and appropriate descriptions of our offspring. She’s very inventive.”
“I know,” Jody answered dryly, turning around and immediately noticing the mess their children had managed to create in just a short period of time. Taryn had applesauce all over her face and hair, just like her brother and one look at the kitchen floor showed her that paper towels would most likely not be sufficient to clean up all the bits and pieces that had landed in various parts of the kitchen.
Two pairs of innocent looking eyes, one a clear blue and the other one green, stared up at her and Jody bit back a smile.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help, honey? I…”
A pair of strong hands landed on her shoulders and with a gentle shove Sam directed Jody towards the door that lead to the verandah.
“I’m sure. Go. Relax. I’ll take care of this. Believe me, I can handle it.”
“All right, sweetie. Just call me when you need me.”
“I will,” Sam smiled, knowing how hard it was for Jody to sit down while there was work to be done. “We’ ll be joining you soon, so enjoy the peace and quiet while you can.”
“I’ll try, honey,” Jody answered with a smile. She turned to face their children and playfully shook her finger. “Don’t give mama a hard time, all right. She needs her energy to give me that massage later.”
“Don’t you worry,” Sam called after her when she stepped out on the verandah. “I’ll take real good care of you.”
“I know,” Jody chuckled, while closing the door behind her. “Boy, do I know.”
With a sigh of utter contentment, Jody sank down in a chair, grateful for the chance Sam had given her to relax a little. She loved their children dearly and could not image her life without them, but trying to steer a pair of energetic twins through their ‘ terrible two’s’ was nothing less than a challenge and Jody was grateful for her partner’s help. Sam had been very busy with the new resort her father’s company had bought. The place had not been maintained and was completely run down and both Sam and Jody knew it would take a lot of effort and energy to create the environmentally friendly rainforest resort Sam envisioned. But knowing her partner, Jody knew if anyone could do it, it would be Sam.
With a smile Jody watched a big German Shepard run towards the house. Kurt let out a low, but happy bark and jumped on the porch, enthusiastically wagging his tail. Pressing his nose against Jody’s leg he begged for attention that was freely given when his ears were scratched by experienced, strong fingers.
“Oh, you like that, huh?” Jody chuckled, watching Kurt close his eyes in pure bliss. “I could almost swear that Sam has taught you that. Hasn’t she, boy?” she talked to the dog, who shamelessly yawned and put his big head on Jody’s lap.
“Everybody thinks I have two children, but actually I have four,” Jody mumbled to the dog, who answered with a low, throaty growl of pleasure.
Just as Jody closed her eyes and leaned her head against the back of the chair, the phone rang and with a frustrated sigh she opened one eye, shooting a dark glance at the noisy offender on the table next to her.
Knowing Sam had probably taken the twins into the bathroom she reached out a hand and picked up the phone. When she looked at the digital display she knew the caller was her sister.
“Hello, baby-sister,” she teased. “How are you doing? Everything all right up on that mountain?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Fiona’s cheerful voice sounded in her ear. “Remind me to kick Sam’s butt when I’m back. In spite of all the information she gave me about this place, she kind of…forgot…to mention the fact that the road up to the resort is a death trap.”
“It is?” Jody asked with a frown, wondering how much truth there was in her sister’s words. Fiona was known for her blatant exaggerations. “But you managed to get up there anyway.”
“I did, but let me tell you, sis, it wasn’t easy.”
“I’m sure Sam will have that road fixed up,” Jody replied.
“She’d better,” Fiona chuckled. “Talking about the…my dear sister-in-law…is she around?”
“She’s busy at the moment,” Jody smiled when she heard splashing and laughter coming from the bathroom window. “Taryn and Tim were covered in applesauce and Sam is seeing if it will wash off or if it will have to wear off.”
Jody heard Fiona laugh out loud and she could almost picture the mischievous look in her sister’s eyes. Fiona adored the twins and the feeling was mutual. The three of them managed to get into all sorts of trouble on a regular base.
“What happened? Weren’t you and Sam around to stop the double T’s?”
“We were…otherwise occupied at that moment,” Jody answered with as much dignity as possible.
“Oh, I get it,” Fiona grinned. “You and Sam were making out and…”
“We were not,” Jody interrupted, mentally slapping herself for responding. The best course of action, when her sister was teasing, was just to ignore her.
“It was just a simple hug,” Jody sighed, wondering why she felt the need to defend herself. “And you know our kids, they’re like you were when you were that age… quick to get into trouble. As a matter of fact, I believe you’re still that way.”
“Sometimes,” Fiona laughed, enjoying the verbal sparring with her sister. “I did get into trouble a few times today,” she confessed.
“You did? What happened?” Jody asked with concern.
With her typical sense of humor, Fiona told her sister about the way she and Robin Adams had met and what role a red-bellied black snake had played in it all. When she was done, Jody was laughing heartily, but she couldn’t help warning her sister.
“Be careful, Fi. There might be a lot of snakes out there, especially since there haven’t been many people in that area for a while.”
“I’ll be careful,” Fiona promised. “Getting bitten by a snake is not my idea of a good time. By the way, sis,” she added in one breath. “Did you happen to hear anything from Alice or Yarra today?”
“As a matter of fact, I did,” Jody answered, propping her feet up on a chair. “Alice called this afternoon. They will be coming home this weekend.” The redhead’s voice sounded happy.
“Cool, I can drag them over here to give me a hand.”
“You need help taking pictures?” Jody asked, surprised by her sister’s words. Fiona was by far the most independent of her siblings and hearing her asking for help was a true novelty.
“No, of course not,” Fiona answered, sounding a little miffed. “But there’s a lot of work to be done here and one of the blokes who would create some order in the chaos called in sick and I just thought Yarra and Alice would like to come over here, help out a bit, camp out…just like the old times.”
Jody took her time to digest the waterfall of words and only when she had processed them all, she made an effort to reply. She knew Sam had hired somebody who could clear the overgrown paths on the property, something that needed to be done first, before they could even think about doing something else. But she couldn’t remember Sam telling her somebody called in sick. She made a mental note to ask her partner about that.
“You would spend your weekend slashing away vines and stuff on overgrown paths?” she finally answered, having a hard time imagining her youngest sister doing just that.
“Why not? It’s for the greater good, right?” Fiona casually answered. “Besides, I plan on having Yarra and Alice do most of the work, while I take pictures,” she added with a chuckle.
That was the Fiona Jody knew.
“What does the manager have to say about that?”
“Robin? I don’t know,” Fiona answered and Jody knew she was shrugging her shoulders. “Hard to tell what she thinks. She’s here with her brother and no one else, so I thought Sam would appreciate us helping out a bit.”
“I’m sure she does,” Jody nodded. “What about this brother? Can he help as well?”
“I don’t know, sis. He seems to be a nice kid, but his sister is very protective of him. When I suggested something like that this morning, she almost bit my head off.”
“She did, huh?” Jody smiled at the incredulous tone in Fiona’s voice. In spite of her often casual and aloof attitude, Fiona could be very sensitive, something she usually hid well. “Well, Sam told me a few things about this manager and I’m sure she’ ll have a good reason. She did sound knowledgeable and very eager to take on this project.”
“She must be, when she uses that machete herself,” Jody heard Fiona mumble. “Looked like she had done that before.”
Jody smiled and stuffed a soft pillow behind her head, so she could lean back and be utterly comfortable. She was enjoying the conversation with her youngest sister.
“So, tell me, Fi, what’s the place like? I haven’t been up that mountain in…well, ages. I think the last time I was up there, Megan and I were still together and even then the place was sorely run down.”
“That is ages ago,” Fiona admitted. “It’s a…I want to say ‘dump’. However, I don’t think it’s that bad, but it’s pretty run down, sis. The only building that I’ve seen thus far, was the office and even that place looks like it could collapse at any given time. Like, when someone inside sneezes, or something.”
“Then make sure not to sneeze tonight,” Jody dryly replied.
“Don’t worry,” Fiona snorted. “I won’t even be in the building. I’ll pitch a tent, thank you very much. I’m not sleeping in that wobbly thing. I’ll leave that to The woman from Snowy Mountain and her little brother.”
“I didn’t know Robin Adams had a horse,” Jody dead panned.
“Sure you do,” Fiona cheerfully answered. “Its name is Chip and it loves to sit on her shoulder_”
“Fiona_” Jody warned, knowing how cynical her sister could be.
“Don’t worry, Pea. I promise to be civilized. Honest.”
“You’d better. Don’t forget Robin is kind of your boss right now.”
“Yes, ‘oops’,” Jody repeated with a smile, having heard Fiona’s chuckle.
“So, being the Big Boss’ favorite sister-in-law wouldn’t save me?”
“You’d better ask Sam that,” Jody replied diplomatically. “But somehow I think you already know the answer to that question.”
“In that case, I’d better keep a low profile…and take some good pictures in the process. Maybe I’ll just associate with the brother. He’s pretty cute.”
“Sounds like a plan, Fiona,” Jody smiled. “Just make sure you behave.”
“Always,” was the predictable answer.
Jody turned her head when she heard the door being opened and a huge smile adorned her face when she watched Sam walk out onto the porch with a freshly scrubbed child on each arm.
“Mommy_” Timothy beamed, stretching out his arms to Jody, almost jumping out of Sam’s arm.
“Whoa, take it easy, Champ_” Sam exclaimed, tightening her grip on the wiggling boy. “Little Mister Wigglebutt,” she added with a chuckle when a pair of clear blue eyes looked at her indignantly.
Timothy’s face was scrunched up in a frown and Sam couldn’t help laughing when she noticed an all too familiar pout.
“Oh, now you’ re just like your mommy,” she grinned, using her fingers to tickle the boy’s side. “But all right, I’ll put you down. Just make sure not to pull Kurt’s ears.”
“That’s Taryn’s favorite thing to do, honey,” Jody dryly remarked, hearing Fiona’s clear laugh when she held up the phone. “I’ll trade you Fiona for Tim. How’s that?”
Sam winked at her partner and bent down to steal a quick kiss.
“That’s no trade_ That’s a punishment,” she joked, knowing full well that her sister-in-law could hear her loud and clear.
Jody just smiled and stretched out her arms to Timothy, who squealed happily when he landed on his mother’s warm lap.
“Mommy, story? Please?” he asked, pointing at the colorful book on the table. To her delight Jody had discovered that their son loved books and the little boy could keep himself occupied for long periods of time, as long as he had a book. Taryn, on the other hand, was much more adventurous than her brother and Sam and Jody always had to keep an eye on their daughter because she was famous for getting herself into trouble. Sam called it a ‘ McDonnell’ trade, while Jody was convinced it had to be Stevens’ genes. Whatever it was, they still hadn’t figured it out.
“Sure, sweetie,” Jody answered, cuddling her son before reaching out and taking the book from the table. “What story do you like to hear?”
“Hey. Fi? What’s up? Everything going according to plan?” Sam asked, leaning against the railing of the verandah, while keeping an eye on Taryn, who was steadily making her way over to Kurt. But the dog sensed the approach of his little Nemesis and, not bothering with etiquette, the German Shepard easily jumped over the railing, neatly landing on the grass. Without looking back, he casually strolled to his favorite spot, underneath a tall tree, where he lay down, his intelligent brown eyes never leaving the scene on the veranda.
“Hi, Sam. Seems like the bloke you hired to do some hard labor has abandoned you,” Fiona casually remarked.
“What?” Sam exclaimed. “Are you serious? I talked to him yesterday and everything was all right. Why didn’t Robin call me?”
“I don’t know, Sam and I’m not telling you this to get her into trouble, but, like I told Jody, maybe Yarra and Alice would like to come over tomorrow evening. We can camp out and help a bit with clearing some tracks up here.”
“Not on your life,” Sam immediately replied. “Yarra and Alice can go over there and camp out, I don’t care. But I don’t want any of you hacking away with a machete. It’s pretty dangerous work and you really need to know what you’ re doing. I’ll make arrangements and have it done as soon as possible. Is Robin around?”
“I guess,” Fiona answered. “I just pitched up my tent. I’m not sleeping in that dangerous looking office building, Sam. Last time I saw Robin is when she went to finish that path she worked on today.”
There was a brief silence and even though Sam did not speak at all, Fiona knew she had just said something that the tall blonde did not like.
“She’s doing what?” Sam finally asked, sounding deceptively calm.
“Umm..she’s uh…well, you know, clearing one of those paths,” Fiona slowly answered, knowing deep down inside she had just given Robin Adams a whole new reason to be angry at her.
This time she’ ll seriously bite my head off, she winced.
“Could you do me a favor, Fiona? Could you find her and tell her I’ ll take care of tha? I’ll have some people over first thing in the morning.”
“Sure, no problem,” Fiona answered. “I’ll tell her. Um…any other messages I need to pass on?”
“No, Fi, thanks,” Sam sighed, raking a hand through her unruly hair. “I’ll have a talk with Robin sometime next week. Jody invited her and Joshua over for dinner. I’m sure I’ll have the chance to hear how things are going when they are here.”
“Okay, Sam. I’d better hunt her down then. I’ll see you Sunday, if everything goes according to plan.”
“I have faith in you, Fi, I’m sure you’ll bring home some breathtaking photo’s.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, sis,” Fiona chuckled. “But I’ll try to impress you.”
“I know you will,” Sam smiled. “Take care, Fi.”
“I will. Give Jody and the twins a hug for me. See ya_”
Sam pressed the ‘off’ button on the phone and absentmindedly tapped the device against her thigh. Her blue eyes were staring into the distance and Jody, who cast a look at her silent partner, knew there was something on her mind…something serious. Sam only sucked in her bottom lip when she was worried or deep in thought and Jody smiled when she saw the striking resemblance between Timothy and Sam. But then, Sam and her brother Tom resembled each other so much, people who saw them together often thought they were twins.
“Honey?” Jody softly asked, seeing the electric blue eyes she loved so much slowly traveling her way. “Is everything all right?”
Sam slowly nodded and sent her partner a warm smile. She could never get enough of looking at Jody and their children. Her world revolved around those three people who held her heart so effortlessly.
“That man I hired to clear those paths called in sick. I need to talk to him and get a replacement as soon as possible. Do you mind if I make a few phone calls? I should be back in a little while.”
“No, sweetie, I don’t mind,” Jody answered, automatically reaching out to rescue a little beetle from Taryn’s insistent fingers.
“No, Taryn,” she spoke forcefully, when a pair of green eyes shot her an accusing look. “Leave the beetle alone. You’re squashing him.”
Jody appreciated her daughter’s love for nature, but she had a hard time understanding why Taryn was so fascinated with insects. The little girl loved to pick them up and play with them, but her parents saw the danger in those activities and did the best they could to keep Taryn and the bugs separated…for both species’ sake.
Taryn produced an adorable pout while she looked at Sam, who laughed and shook her head.
“Don’t give me that look, squirt. You know we don’t like you torturing those poor little critters. You’ll need to learn to play nice.”
Pushing away from the railing, she blew her partner and children a kiss, before disappearing into the house, her mind already busy with the impending phone call.
Fiona carefully chose her way, while she followed the narrow, winding path that was scattered with freshly chopped branches and twigs. She briefly wondered who and how the manager was planning to get rid of the biological excess.
“Using a big rake, no doubt,” she mumbled to herself, grinning when her mind’s eye was immediately filled with an image of Robin trying to clean up the path she had created, her legs entangled in vines, while trying to fight off the branches that were trying to grab her.
With a sudden bounce in her step, the young photographer cheerfully whistled a tune, while making her way through the forest. After a few minutes she stopped and looked around with a puzzled expression on her face.
“Have I been here before or not?” she softly asked herself. “I’d swear I took the path I’ve been on before and it does look like someone has been here.”
Fiona took the time to study her surroundings and after a little while she concluded that the path she had taken was not the same she had been on that morning.
“No surprise, since it’s all very…green,” Fiona chuckled, not worried at all. She knew that if she’d turn around, the track would lead her back to the office building. But being curious and inquisitive, Fiona wanted to know where the path would lead her and, without thinking twice, she decided to keep walking and see where she would end up. It was obvious to her that it had been used, although it had not been properly cleared yet. Believing there had to be a reason for it, she continued her walk, carefully stepping over a thick vine, that snaked across the path like a well-fed reptile.
After a little while, the path suddenly showed a sharp curve and Fiona knew she had to put her feet down carefully if she didn’t want to risk tumbling down the steep cliff that doomed up at her right-hand side.
“Nice view though,” she mumbled, planting her feet down firmly and pulling her camera from its protective case.
Through the trees, ferns, shrubs and vines, Fiona aimed her lens between two trees. It was like nature had created a window and the view was simply breathtaking. In the far distance, the blue of the Pacific Ocean shimmered at the horizon, preceded by hills that showed every shade of green known to mankind.
After taking a few shots, Fiona lowered her camera and turned around to continue her walk, when, from the corner of her eye, she noticed a movement halfway down the hill.
She immediately knelt down, not wanting to ruin her chances of capturing some of the local wildlife. Hours spent in the forest with Yarra had taught her to wait patiently and motionlessly, until she could take the shots she really wanted.
Squinting her eyes, Fiona tried to make out the form that slowly, but steadily made its way across the steep hillside. The thick wall of green obscured it most of the time, but every now and then Fiona could glance at the dark form that had her puzzled. She was familiar with the local wildlife and the countless hikes with Yarra and Alice had resulted in a decent knowledge about all the flora and fauna.
“But I’ve never seen a wallaby that big, so, unless we do have ourselves a genuine Aussie Bigfoot, my guess is that somebody is sneaking around the place. I left Joshua at the office, so it can’t be him and Robin is a lot smaller than this…person,” Fiona mumbled to herself, instinctively crawling behind a bush to make sure she could not be seen. “In fact, this person would even make Sam look like a midget.”
Zooming in on the dark form, Fiona was disappointed when she still could not get a clear picture, but stubbornly she followed it, her finger on the button, ready to push it. Even though she could not make out anything else but a dark, tall form making its way through the bushes, she did notice something was dropped on the forest floor. Immediately Fiona’s camera started a soft clicking sound when she took picture after picture, until the dark form disappeared from view.
With a deep frown Fiona lowered her camera and stared at the point where she had seen the figure last. Her dark-green eyes held a pensive expression when she tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for the things she had just witnessed. Her thoughts went back a few years and an involuntarily shiver ran down her back when she remembered the crazed look in the eyes of Martin Coles, when he stood in front of Jody’s car, with a burning Molotov-cocktail in his hand.
She knew the ex-police officer was dead. She had witnessed how Trishia had no other choice but to shoot him.
It was all in the past and Martin Coles was dead.
“Who the heck is this and what is he doing here?” Fiona mumbled, not able to push away the faint trace of fear that had settled in the pit of her stomach.
“Excuse me?” a puzzled voice suddenly sounded behind her and Fiona yelped uncharacteristically, immediately rolling to her side and pushing herself up. It only took her a split second to get back to her feet again and she was ready to bolt, when all of a sudden she looked into the curious eyes of Robin Adams.
Mumbling a popular expletive, Fiona let out a deep breath and leaned against a tree, hoping her legs were strong enough to carry her weight.
“You scared me into the next galaxy_” she sighed, shooting Robin an accusing glance. “I’m sure I have a gray hair now somewhere.”
“Sorry about that,” Robin answered, taking in the tall form in front of her with an inquisitive stare. Fiona McDonnell didn’t strike her as a person who would be spooked easily, but the photographer was visibly pale and shaken up. “I..um…I didn’t expect to see you here. Is lying on the ground something a lot of photographers do?” Robin joked and when Fiona looked up she noticed a twinkle in the manager’s hazel eyes.
“Depends on their field of expertise, I guess,” Fiona laughed, feeling tired now the tension had been drained from her body. She raked her fingers through her shoulder-length hair and took in a deep, cleansing breath.
“I’m sorry I surprised you like that,” Robin apologized again. “I really didn’t mean to. But…what were you doing anyway?”
“Looking for you,” Fiona answered, seeing Robin’s eyes travel from her face to the steep hill behind her and back again. The manager’s eyebrows rose and Fiona chuckled.
“Not there,” she explained. “Initially I was looking for you, but I got kind of…side-tracked.”
“Local wildlife?” Robin smiled, frowning when Fiona shook her head.
“Is there any chance of a Yowie encounter around here?” Fiona casually asked, suppressing a grin when she saw the look of confusion on Robin’s face.
“A Yowie encounter. You know, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti. Sasquatch. Whatever they call them.”
Robin nibbled on her bottom lip and cast a look at Fiona’s face, trying very hard to determine whether the young photographer was playing a joke on her or not. But Fiona’s face held a serious expression while the dark-green eyes looked at her expectantly.
“I…um…I read the stories, but…there’s still no consensus about whether the stories about the Yowie are real or not,” Robin answered, carefully choosing her words. “Of course I’m no cryptozoologist, but…um…what exactly did you see?”
Fiona smiled, appreciating the way Robin had answered her question. The woman had taken her seriously, even though Fiona had been joking. She knew that what she had seen was human, since it had been wearing clothes, dark ones.
“There was somebody down there,” Fiona explained, pointing towards the hillside where she had first noticed the figure. “And it wasn’t a Yowie,” she added with a smile.
It didn’t escape Fiona’s notice that, all of a sudden, Robin turned pale, while her eyes briefly flashed with something that could only be described as ‘ fear’ .
“W..What do you mean you saw somebody down there?” Robin stammered, visibly nervous.
“I was looking for you, when I suddenly noticed some movement down the hill. I stopped and looked and then I saw something tall, on two legs, walking down there. I tried to get a good look, but I’m afraid there was too much green stuff blocking my view.”
For some reason, Fiona didn’t reveal the fact that she had taken some pictures, determined to enlarge them as soon as she would have the chance to view them on her computer..
“Is there anything wrong, Robin?” Fiona asked with concern, noticing how the manager’s eyes nervously darted around.
“I..I don’t know,” was the soft answer. “I just don’t like the idea of… strangers walking around here, especially not when it will be getting dark soon. Maybe we should head back. I…um…I don’t want Joshua to be alone too long.”
“Sure,” Fiona answered, hoisting her camera bag over her shoulder and following Robin, who had turned around and already was on her way back. Fiona’s long legs followed Robin with ease and while staring at the back of Robin’s head, Fiona wondered what was going on exactly. The manager’s reaction to her story had been very interesting and Fiona just knew that Robin had not told her the truth. She could feel it.
Fiona sighed and wrinkled her freckled nose in thought.
“I can smell a rat,” she mused. “There’s something going on here and I don’t like it. And I’d better keep my eyes and ears open.”
Fiona swallowed hard when she felt a tingling sensation run across her back, like somebody was watching her. Resisting the urge to look over her shoulder, she quickened her pace to keep up with Robin.
And I’m not sleeping in my tent tonight.
Fiona was used to the sounds of the bush. Growing up in and around the forest, they had almost become a part of her. The familiar calls of the nocturnal animals often rocked her to sleep, giving her a sense of belonging and peace.
So when the dark-haired photographer woke up during the night, she immediately knew she was aroused from sleep by something unusual. Reluctant to open her eyes, Fiona concentrated on her surroundings. From the tiny backroom came the sound of Joshua’s soft snoring and involuntarily she smiled. The previous evening, she had come to know the teenager a little better and she had been amused by the way he had flirted with her, totally ignoring his sister’s warning glances.
Fiona suppressed a yawn and slowly opened her eyes a little. Glancing through her lashes, she concentrated on her breathing, while her gaze slowly traveled through the dark office that was only lit by the soft light of the moon streaming through one of the windows.
On the other side of the room she could see the dark form of Robin Adams, curled up in her sleeping bag. The manager seemed to be having a dream, because she softly mumbled something incoherent.
For a brief moment Fiona wondered if the soft sounds coming from Robin had awakened her, but she quickly disposed of that thought when, from the corner of her eye, a shadowy figure outside the window almost made her yelp in surprise.
Biting her lip, Fiona took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart, while her hand slowly reached for the cell phone she had strategically placed within reach.
And who exactly do you plan on calling, Nancy Drew? It’s in the middle of the night, you’re on some semi-remote rainforest covered mountain, at least thirty minutes away from the nearest sign of civilization and your only companions are a teenage boy and his overprotective sister. Good luck, McDonnell.
Fiona felt her body stiffen when the shadowy figure halted outside the window and slowly turned its head, showing a vague profile. Unfortunately, it was too dark to discern any specific features or characteristics.
Part of her was tempted to rise up from her sleeping bag to get a better look, but the fear that raced through her body kept her firmly in place. She moistened her lips and swallowed hard, while her eyes traveled from the window to the sleeping figure of Robin, who was still making soft, incoherent noises.
Fiona decided that whoever was standing outside the office should not be tempted to enter the small building and she made a quick decision.
“Robin,” she whispered as loud as she dared, while her eyes darted back to the window, hoping the dark figure would not hear her voice. She knew that the room they were in was pitch dark and the person outside would probably not be able to see either her or Robin.
Robin Adams mumbled something unintelligent and turned on her side, this time facing Fiona, however, she was still fast asleep.
“Robin_” Fiona whispered again, this time a little more urgent, holding her breath when the figure outside suddenly turned around and disappeared from view.
“Robin, wake up_”
The answer was a deep sigh and for a split second, Fiona thought the manager would respond, but with a muffled mumble, Robin buried her head deeper in her pillow, without waking up.
“Jeez, woman, you sleep like you’ re in a coma,” Fiona muttered, carefully slipping out of her sleeping bag and crawling towards the sleeping Robin.
“It’s the middle of the night,” was the unexpected low growl. “I’m entitled to sleep.”
“Not when there’s somebody sneaking around the building,” Fiona responded softly, hearing Robin’s sharp intake of breath.
Fiona had reached Robin and she quickly prevented the other woman from jumping up. With her hand on Robin’s shoulder, she firmly pressed her back to the floor, while whispering: “For goodness’ sake. Stay down_”
Groggy from sleep, Robin shook her head in an attempt to clear it and raked her fingers through her unruly hair.
“Somebody’s outside?” she repeated in a husky voice.
“Yes,” Fiona whispered, relaxing her hand and slowly letting go of Robin’s shoulder. “And believe me, it’s not a Yowie.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Robin whispered, the distress evident in her voice. “What do we do?”
“I’ve no freaking idea,” Fiona answered. “I’d like to call Trish and have her bring some of her police buddies over to make it all go away, but I’m afraid that’s no option.”
“Trishia Waters, my sister-in-law, she’s with the police,” Fiona explained absentmindedly. “But she’s not here, so we’ll have to solve this ourselves, mate,”she added with a sigh.
In spite of the darkness Fiona could see Robin nod, while she woman crawled out of her sleeping bag.
“You don’t happen to have a gun lying around here somewhere, have you?” Fiona joked, trying to ignore the tight, nervous ball in the pit of her stomach.
“I do,” was the dry answer. “If you get out of the way, I can move to the desk and get it.”
“Good place to hide a gun,” Fiona mumbled, obediently crawling away to allow Robin to pass. “Nobody would come up with the idea to look for it there.”
“No need to get sarcastic with me,” Robin snapped. “At least I do have something to defend us with. What is your contribution, Miss High-and-Mighty?”
“My wit?” Fiona quipped, not seeing how Robin bit her lower lip to suppress a nervous giggle.
For some reason Fiona didn’t like the physical distance between herself and Robin Adams and when her ears picked up a faint sound from outside, she quickly followed the manager, who had reached the old desk and slowly opened the bottom drawer.
“Are…are you…going to shoot…him…her…it?” Fiona asked nervously.
“Only as a last resort,” Robin answered calmly. “Unless you have a better idea.”
“Maybe I can annoy it to death?” Fiona mumbled.
“I’m sure you could, but for now you’d better stay behind me,” Robin ordered. “Do you have your cell phone?”
“Right here,” Fiona answered, patting the pocket of her shorts.
“Good. You might want to call the police now.”
“And what do we do in the meantime, Calamity Jane? Have a shootout?”
“I hope not,” Robin mumbled, carefully getting to her feet and inching her way to the door.
It was sunny and warm. The sand of the beach was hot underneath her feet and she knew she had to keep moving to avoid burning her skin. The ocean was close and she could almost feel the cool water surrounding her warm skin, helping wash away the sand and perspiration. With a smile, she turned to the woman who was walking beside her, her long, dark hair disheveled by the gentle breeze. Just when she was about to tell her how beautiful she was, an insistent, annoying buzzing interrupted her words before they were even spoken.
Impatiently, she slapped away the aggravating fly that was buzzing around her head, but the soft, irritating sound did not stop. On the contrary, it seemed to intensify and with a frustrated groan she slapped the area where the noise came from.
“It’s the phone, honey,” a sleepy voice sounded close to her ear. “I knew I should have thrown it outside the window two days ago.”
“I’m sorry, baby,” Trishia answered, opening her eyes and casting a look at the alarm clock. Its green digits glowing softly in the dark.
It was just after midnight.
With a sigh Trishia extended her arm to grab the phone off the night-stand and briefly closed her eyes, hoping she would be able to stay right where she was: in bed with her warm, sleepy partner.
“Trishia Waters,” she spoke, a little more gruff than she had intended.
“Trish, it’s me, Jake,” a hesitant voice sounded. “I’m sorry to disturb you so late, but I think you’ll want to know this.”
“Know what, Jake? What happened?” Trishia asked, a little more friendlier this time.
“We received a call from Kiala Park, or whatever it’s called these days. It was your sister-in-law, Fiona. She’s up there and apparently somebody is snooping around there in the middle of the night, scaring the bej…scaring her and the other occupants.”
“Other occupants?” Trishia asked with a puzzled frown. “What are you talking about, Jake? What the heck is Fiona doing up there anyway?”
Lucy McDonnell, who heard the name of her youngest sister, suddenly rose and put her hand on her partner’s thigh.
“Fiona’s on an assignment,” she explained quickly.” It’s for that new resort Sam’s working on. Is she in trouble?”
“I don’t know,” Trishia answered. “What did she say, Jake? And who’s up there now?”
“I didn’t take the call, Trish, David did. But from what I understand, Fiona and Robin Adams woke up because somebody was walking around the cabin they were in. It’s just those two up there and a teenage boy, Adams’ brother.”
Trishia frowned again and reached out her free hand to switch on the light. In her mind, she was already calculating how long it would take her to get dressed and drive up the mountain.
In the dark.
Probably around forty-five minutes, she estimated.
“Who is up there now, Jake?” she asked, turning down the comforter and swinging her long legs out of the bed.
“Two teams. Greg and Paul and Jennifer and Mac. They left fifteen minutes ago and are driving up the mountain as we speak. But it’s dark there, Trish. Pitch-dark.”
“Yes, I bet it is,” Trishia answered. “What’s their ETA?”
“Jennifer just checked in and she said five minutes.”
“Alright, keep me informed, I’ll get up there myself. I’ll leave right away.”
“Trish, there’s nothing you can do, really. Why don’t you let the guys check things out and…”
“I’ll leave in a few minutes. Keep me informed,” Trishia interrupted Jake, before putting down the phone and reaching out for her shorts and shirt.
“What’s going on, honey?” Lucy asked, her voice filled with worry.
“Fiona’s up that mountain and somebody is snooping around in the dark. Apparently, she’s scared enough to have called the police, so they sent up two teams.”
“And you are going as well,” Lucy remarked, knowing her partner well. “I’ll come with you.”
Trishia turned around and opened her mouth to object, but when she noticed the look of determination in her partner’s eyes, she slowly nodded. The horrific events that had preceded the death of Martin Coles, only a few years before, were still firmly imprinted in her mind. The McDonnells had been through a lot and deep down inside Trishia knew it would be impossible to try and convince Lucy to stay home.
“Alright, Luce. Let’s get going.”
“Robin, what are you doing?” Fiona whispered urgently, grabbing the hem of Robin Adams’ shirt in order to stop her from opening the door. “The police are on the way. They’ll be here soon.”
“And probably chase away whoever is trespassing.”
“And that is bad….why?”
“I want to know who is out there and why. If you are too scared to come along, you can stay here. I’d understand.”
“Yeah, right,” Fiona softly snorted, tugging the hem of Robin’s shirt. “Listen, Lara Croft, what if that person out there is not alone? Then what?”
Robin, who had her hand on the doorknob, pulled back as if she had burnt her fingers and half-turned to Fiona, who was standing right behind her.
“I hadn’t considered that option,” she admitted a little more worried this time.
“No, that’s obvious,” Fiona responded. “Let’s just stay put and keep an eye on the windows and door, alright?
The words had hardly left her lips, when the doorknob was slowly turned, creating a grinding noise that sounded loud in the quiet darkness of the night.
“Oh, crap_” Fiona whispered. “This is so not good.”
“Step back, Fiona,” Robin urged, trying very hard to hide the quiver in her voice. “Let’s get away from this door.”
Fiona didn’t need more encouragement. She carefully walked backwards, making sure her eyes never left the door, while her hand was still wrapped in the fabric of Robin’s shirt.
Both women inched their way to the other side of the small room. Robin almost tripped over her sleeping bag and only Fiona’s steadying hand on her back prevented her from toppling over.
“Careful,” Fiona urged, suppressing a startled cry when shadowy figure appeared in front of the window.
Robin muttered an expletive which would have made Fiona chuckle, if it had not been followed by the sound of a gun being cocked. It was obvious that Robin knew how to handle the weapon, but Fiona hoped no shots would be fired.
With her back pressed against the wall, Fiona noticed that Robin stepped in front of her when the mysterious stranger outside studied the window, obviously looking for a way to open it.
“Get down,” Robin softly whispered, grabbing Fiona’s hand and pulling her down, so they were mostly hidden behind the huge, old-fashioned desk.
A small, but bright beam of light suddenly filled the room, making Fiona and Robin duck their heads and hold their breath. The beam slowly traveled through the room, pausing when it fell on Fiona’s sleeping bag. Then it suddenly disappeared and the silence was broken by the sound of running footsteps.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Robin sighed, hearing the sound of an approaching car. “I think the police are here.”
“In the nick of time,” Fiona added, wiping the perspiration from her forehead. “Just like in the movies.”
With trembling fingers, Robin pushed away a strand of hair that threatened to fall into her eyes and she slowly nodded.
“Just like in the movies,” she repeated. “I think that…”
Robin Adams could not finish her sentence, because all of a sudden one of the windows on the side of the building shattered and they were showered with glass. Fiona, who was standing closest to the window, jumped aside and let out a strangled cry when she felt shards of glass embed themselves in her right cheek and shoulder. A strong hand on her arm pulled her away from the window and pushed her back to the ground.
“Are you hurt?” Robin asked urgently, while her eyes darted from Fiona to the shattered window and back again. Her ears picked up a sound coming from the backroom and she half-turned, when Joshua opened the door of his make-shift bedroom.
“Josh, get back in there,” Robin called out.
“What’s up, Rob, I…”
“Later, Josh. Get back in there, shut the door and stay close to the ground. Now_”
Joshua knew better than to argue with his sister. Experience had taught him to listen to her when her voice took on that low tone, almost sounding like a growl. So, the teenager nodded and, after casting a worried glance at the hunkered-down form of Fiona, he quickly retreated into his windowless room, making sure to close the door.
After Robin had made sure Joshua had stepped back into his room, she turned her attention to Fiona, who had her hand pressed against her cheek and was softly muttering a curse.
“What the heck was that?”
“I’m not sure,” Robin answered. ” Maybe a rock. But, whoever threw it is gone right now, because I heard him run through the bushes.”
“Whatever it was, it doesn’t make me happy,” Fiona grunted, feeling a trickle of blood roll down her cheek. She carefully wiped it away and winced when her fingertips came into contact with the small shards of glass that were sticking to her skin.
“So much for participating in next week’s beauty pageant,” she joked wryly, hearing two cars stop outside.
“Were you going to…? You’ re joking, right?” Robin responded.
“Why? Do you think I’m not pretty enough?” Fiona grunted with a hurt expression, which was mainly due to the cuts in her face and not Robin’s disbelief.
“I don’t know much about that kind of stuff,” Robin mumbled while she got back on her feet again to unlock the door.
“What’s there to know?” Fiona softly chuckled. “It’s not exactly rocket science.”
She didn’t know if the older woman had heard her words, because there was no response from Robin, as she walked to the door, unlocked it and stepped outside.
“You might want to put that gun away,” Fiona warned. “I’d hate to see you get some unwanted ventilation holes.”
“This is not some cheap police movie, Miss McDonnell,” Robin answered sharply. “Besides, I do have a permit for this weapon.”
“Whatever. Suit yourself, Cagney, or is it Lacey?”
Fiona slowly shook her head as she watched Robin step outside. She could not remember having met anyone like Robin Adams, ever. The woman was positively intriguing. One moment she seemed to be genuinely warm and caring, the next moment she could be cold, sharp and cynical.
Fire and ice. Scientist and action hero…I’m sure there must be something in between those opposites, maybe the real Robin Adams? It will be interesting to find out…
“Do you always talk to yourself?” a youthful, slightly tense voice sounded and Fiona turned her head.
“Not really,” she answered. “I might be a lunatic, but I do try to hide that.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” Joshua promised with a laugh. “What’s going on here?”
“Didn’t your sister tell you to stay put and down?”
“Yes, she did, but I heard the police cars and thought it would be safe to come out now. So, what’s up?”
“I don’t know, mate,” Fiona sighed, using the sleeve of her t-shirt to wipe away some blood. She could feel there were still pieces of glass stuck in her skin and she hoped they would be easy to remove. Thank goodness, no glass had landed in her eyes.
“I woke up because I heard something and when I opened my eyes I saw somebody outside the window. I woke up your sister and called the police. Just before they arrived the…intruder threw something through the window.”
“Was Robin hurt?” Joshua immediately asked.
“No and I’m fine as well, thank you for asking,” Fiona sighed, wondering where the mutual protectiveness between the two siblings came from. As the youngest child of six, Fiona knew that, especially her older sisters were protective of her, but it wasn’t anything like between Robin and Joshua. It was another piece of the puzzle called ‘Robin Adams’, that Fiona was determined to solve.
“I…I’m sorry, Fiona, I…” Joshua stammered and immediately Fiona regretted her words.
“Don’t worry about it, Josh,” she interrupted the teenager, putting her hand on his shoulder. “I understand. I guess I’m a little shaken up. Could you make some light?”
“Sure,” Joshua answered, walking towards the desk. It only took him a few seconds to ignite a small, but bright propane light. With a smile he turned around, but when his eyes fell on Fiona he gasped in shock.
“You’ re hurt_”
“I’m sure it looks worse than it feels,” Fiona mumbled. “But there are some pieces of glass in my face that weren’t meant to be there. Do you have a mirror and some tweezers?”
“Robin does,” Joshua nodded.
“I do, what?” a voice sounded from the door and when Fiona looked up she saw Robin Adams step back into the office, followed by a familiar female police officer.
“Hello Jennifer,” Fiona greeted the woman with a tired smile. “Thanks for rescuing us.”
“We live to serve and protect,” Jennifer Diaz answered with a warm smile. “Girl, you look like…you had a fight with a…”
“Yowie,” Fiona added. “Actually it was only a window. Imagine what a Yowie can do, huh?”
“I doubt it was anything exotic like that,” Jennifer mumbled, stepping closer to Fiona and examining her face. “You need some medical attention, love.”
“No, thanks,” Fiona immediately answered with a wrinkled nose. “I don’t like hospitals and doctors. All I need is some clean water, a mirror and a pair of tweezers.”
“It looks like a few of these cuts are pretty deep though.”
“I’ll live,” Fiona grimaced. “Where are the rest of the troops?”
“Paul, Greg and Mac are trying to find some tracks, but it’s pitch-dark out there. By the way, your sister is on her way up as well.”
“I didn’t know Trish was on duty.”
“She wasn’t,” Jennifer Diaz chuckled. “But you know Trishia. As soon as Jake called her, she wanted to come up here and check out things herself. VIP treatment, if you’d ask me,” the police woman teased.
“What can I say?” Fiona smiled. “Over the years she must have come to like me. What do you think?”
“Maybe it’s only to get Lucy off her back,” Jennifer answered with a grin.
“That must be it,” Fiona smiled. “Don’t tell me Luce is coming as well.”
“Of course she is. You’ re her baby sister.”
“That sucks,” Fiona sighed. “I didn’t mean to wake up the whole family and drag them out of bed in the middle of the night. Lucy needs her rest.”
Jennifer Diaz’ dark-brown eyes shone with warmth and affection when she patted Fiona gently on her back. Being a close friend of Trishia Waters, she had witnessed a lot of interactions between Lucy and Fiona McDonnell. For some reason the two sisters always needed to tease each other and Fiona especially could get on Lucy’s last nerve sometimes. Still, there was never real animosity between them and when push came to shove, they were always there for each other. Fiona’s concern for her sister’s well-being was heartwarming. Jennifer knew from Trishia that Lucy was trying to get pregnant. Unfortunately, she had two miscarriages, which had been very hard on the usually perky and quick-witted Lucy.
“Sit down, sweetie,” Jennifer urged, gently pushing Fiona towards an old, wooden chair. “Let me look at those cuts. Do you have a first-aid kit, Miss Adams?” she asked, seeing Robin nod.
Without saying a word, Robin walked towards the desk and opened one of the drawers, to pull out a fully equipped first-aid kit.
“Wow, that’s some kind of desk. It hold guns and bandages and who knows what else,” Fiona joked. “It’s like a treasure chest.”
“You’ve watched too many pirate movies,” Robin answered.
“She has,” a soft voice suddenly sounded from the doorway. “And if I’m not mistaken, she does own a copy of ‘ Pirates of the Carribean’.”
“Hey, sis,” Fiona smiled, watching Lucy step inside the room. Even though Lucy McDonnell was clad in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, she still looked elegant and beautiful. Her thick, long, dark hair was pulled into a simple ponytail, held in place by a single strip of leather.
“Is Trish outside?” Jennifer asked.
“Yes, she’s looking for you,” Lucy answered.
“I’d better find her. I’ll see you girls later.”
Jennifer Diaz disappeared into the darkness while Lucy knelt in front of Fiona, her dark-green eyes, so much like her sister’s, scrutinizing every inch of Fiona’s face.
“What happened?” she finally asked in a soft voice.
“The window shattered and I happened to be standing next to it,” Fiona explained simply. “By the way, Lucy, this is Robin and that handsome bloke over there is her brother, Joshua. This is my sister, Lucy.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lucy smiled at the blushing teenager and his pale-looking sister.
“You two could be twins,” Joshua spoke with obvious admiration.
“We hear that a lot,” Lucy nodded and she grinned. “But it’s a good thing we aren’t. Our poor mother wouldn’t have survived two of us at the same time.”
“Instead she could practice on Lucy before I came along,” Fiona added. “That made my life a little easier. With the emphasis on ‘little’.”
That last remark made Robin smile and with a quick glance at Fiona she held up the first-aid kit. Lucy noticed the hesitancy on her face, but she immediately shook her head.
“I’m not good at this,” she confessed. “I hate the sight of blood. Would you…?”
Robin managed not to let out a deep sigh and instead she nodded curtly.
“Get some clean water, will you Josh?” she asked, before pulling up another chair, which she positioned in front of Fiona. When she studied the photographer’s face, Fiona noticed how dark and stormy the hazel eyes were and she decided to sit back and let Robin clean up her face. She was not in the mood for another head-butt session with the moody manager.
Joshua handed his sister a bowl of water, which she set on the table behind her. Using a clean washcloth, she carefully started cleaning the worst of the blood, so she could see where the glass was still embedded in Fiona’s skin.
Fiona almost let out a sigh of relief when the cool cloth touched her burning skin. The cold water felt good against her face.
Her eyes darted through the room. Robin’s face was close and if she wanted, she could look into those hazel eyes and try to get behind the stoic mask that was firmly in place. But, at the moment, Fiona didn’t feel inclined to do so. Hopefully she would have time for that later, without her sister’s curious eyes so annoyingly close.
“You seem…out of sorts,” Lucy calmly remarked, handing Robin a clean washcloth.
“It’s not every night that I wake up being stalked, in a cabin, in the middle of nowhere and showered with glass,” Fiona quipped.
“Hum, I guess you have a point there,” Lucy smiled, reaching out to grab Fiona’s hand. She gave it a gentle squeeze and smiled when Fiona’s fingers wrapped around her own. They never used to be this affectionate with each other, but in the last few years, things had changed. The McDonnell family had gone through a lot and the sisters had grown closer, especially after Lucy’s miscarriages. Fiona had showed such an amount of compassion and genuine care, it had touched Lucy deeply. And it had showed her that little sister had grown up to be a beautiful person, inside and out, even though Fiona still tried her best to hide that. But her family and friends knew that the arrogant, quick-witted and sarcastic attitude was just that, an attitude. The real Fiona McDonnell was hiding behind a mask of indifference and cynical humor and only when she trusted people enough to feel safe, would she let her guard down.
Robin had cleaned away enough blood to get a closer look at the damage the glass had done and Fiona moaned when Robin’s fingers gently touched a swollen area, where the biggest shard had pierced her skin.
“I’m sorry,” Robin mumbled, having pulled away immediately after Fiona’s expression of pain.
“It’s alright,” Fiona exhaled. “Don’t worry about me. It needs to come out, whether I like it or not. Is it in deep?”
Robin leaned in a little closer and Fiona had to force herself not to pull away. She wasn’t used to people being that physically close, except for her family, and she could feel her heart pound in her chest, while her palms became sweaty. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to focus on anything but what was happening at the moment.
“Just pull it out, Robin,” she encouraged in a hoarse voice.
A little insecure, Robin cast a look at Lucy, whose worried green eyes looked so much like Fiona’s, it was almost unsettling.
“Go ahead,” Lucy nodded. “Fiona can squeeze my hand,” she faintly joked.
“I might,” Fiona grunted. “Just twist and pull, Dr. Adams.”
“No twisting,” Robin softly answered, grabbing the piece of glass with her tweezers. “You need to hold still, Fiona,” she warned. “This might hurt, but if you move while I pull it out, I might cause another laceration.”
“I’ll be good,” Fiona answered with clenched teeth. “I’m too pretty to want another cut.”
Next to her, Lucy softly snorted and, unseen to Fiona’s eyes, Robin smiled.
“Let me guess, next week’s beauty pageant. Right?”
“You got it,” Fiona answered.
“Nobody cares if the photographer looks like the bride of Frankenstein, honey,” Lucy chuckled. “I’m sure nobody will notice anyway, since your face is mostly hidden behind your camera.”
“You just gave away my secret, sis,” Fiona said in an accusing tone, opening one eye to cast a look at her sister.
“She tried to make me believe she was a participant in an upcoming beauty pageant,” Robin explained. “I should have known it would be as a photographer.”
“Yes, although she’d have a good chance of winning if she’d enroll in the actual contest,” Lucy answered with a grin.
“But then, I would have to save the world, marry a doctor and have six children,” Fiona quipped. “Too much hassle for me, so, thanks, but no thanks.”
“Alright, here goes. Don’t move,” Robin warned and, unconsciously holding her breath, the manager steadily pulled a piece of glass from Fiona’s cheek. Her fingers slightly trembled when she dropped the shard on the table next to her and she let out a breath of relief, glad that she had managed to get it out without doing any more damage.
“You’d make a great physician,” Lucy mumbled with a hint of admiration in her voice. “I don’t think I’d have been able to do that.”
Robin’s face was turned away towards the table, so neither Lucy nor Fiona saw the flash of pain that briefly crossed her face. When she turned back to face the sisters again, her expression was calm and neutral, although she did look a little pale.
With gentle fingers she cleaned the small cut, wishing, deep down inside, that the cuts wouldn’t leave any permanent marks on Fiona’s skin.
“If it leaves any scars, at least I’ll have a wild story to tell, to explain them,” Fiona dryly remarked, as if she had been reading Robin’s mind. “You know, the ‘ once upon a time’ ones and I can add a bloody battle or something.”
“I keep telling her to cut back watching Xena,” Lucy chuckled. “She and Yarra are addicts and they have corrupted Alice as well.”
Underneath her fingertips, Robin could feel Fiona’s skin grow warm and, with surprise and amusement, she noticed that the stoic photographer was actually blushing. There was a little fire in the dark-green eyes when she cast a look at her sister.
“If I remember correctly, you don’t mind watching it either,” Fiona shot back with indignance. “As a matter of fact, if I remember correctly, it was you who wanted to borrow my season four DVD’s.”
“Ooh, a little touchy, are we?” Lucy teased. “But yes, you’ re right. I’m guilty as charged.”
While the sisters continued their friendly banter, Robin concentrated on cleaning the tiny cuts in Fiona’s face, occasionally using the tweezers to remove a shard of glass. Focusing on her task, she tried to concentrate and not let herself be distracted by the sisterly banter or the closeness of Fiona. She didn’t like being too close to the photographer. For some reason, it seemed to throw her off balance. During the past day, Fiona had managed to ruffle Robin’s feathers on more than one occasion, which was something that had surprised her. Usually she could get along with all people, even strangers. Fiona was an exception to the rule. And it annoyed her. A lot. She had the distinct feeling that Fiona could sense her discomfort and that was another reason she really wanted to keep her distance. Those dark-green eyes gave her the eerie sensation that they could look straight through her. It was scary. It gave her a sense of insecurity and made her nervous.
Robin had been so deep in thought she almost jumped when Fiona lightly tapped her arm.
“Hey, which distant place were you visiting?”
Robin looked up and for a brief moment she met Fiona’s eyes. Startled, she cast them down again and continued to disinfect and clean the freckled skin. Her fingers slightly trembled and she hoped nobody would notice.
“Just thinking,” she finally answered a little gruffly, which made Joshua look at her with a worried frown.
“Mustn’t have been happy thoughts then,” Fiona mumbled, which earned a slap on the wrist from Lucy.
“Be nice,” her sister warned. “You know the rules: never aggravate the person who is stopping you from bleeding all over the place.”
“Never heard that one, but it does make sense,” Fiona answered with a crooked smile. “Sorry, Robin,” she mumbled, avoiding Lucy’s eyes.
“It’s alright, Fiona,” Robin answered softly. “It’s…it has been a long, tough day. I guess I’m tired. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
Over their heads, Lucy’s eyes met Joshua’s twinkling ones and she winked at him, making the teenager grin. It was obvious that, in spite of the recent events, he was thoroughly enjoying the company. Lucy had noticed the shy admiration in his eyes every time he looked at Fiona and she suspected he had a major crush on her sister. And she couldn’t blame him; Fiona was very attractive. Lucy had received a lot of requests from young men to set up a date with her youngest sister, but until now Fiona had always refused. She wasn’t interested in romance. According to her, it was a waste of time and energy.
Lucy smiled. The whole family was patiently waiting for Fiona to meet somebody special and fall in love. Joshua was a couple of years younger than Fiona, but who knew? He was cute and Lucy had seen the look her sister had given him. It definitely had been an affectionate one.
Was that why Robin Adams seemed so…distant? A little gruff sometimes?
Lucy shifted on her chair and suddenly felt wide awake. She had the feeling that something was going on between Fiona and the Adams siblings and she was determined to find out what. Suppressing a smug smile, Lucy leaned back in her chair, content to wait patiently and see what the near future would bring.
As soon as Trishia had arrived on the scene, she had immediately and automatically taken the lead, being the senior commanding officer. Together with Jennifer, she had searched the grounds surrounding the cabin, looking for traces, but the earth was dry and there were no foot prints to be found. The only tracks they were able to find were some broken branches behind the little office building.
Trishia’s fellow police officers, Paul, Greg and Mac had tried to follow the trail of broken branches into the forest, but because of the darkness they had to give up. They were in unfamiliar territory and knew it was easy to get lost in the dark, or slip and tumble down one of the many steep hills.
Disappointed, they returned to their cars where Trishia and Jennifer were waiting for them. Trishia’s face held a thoughtful expression when she stared at the dark, impenetrable wall of foliage behind the small office building. It was obvious that, whoever had scared the living daylights out of Fiona and Robin, had known his way around the place. Nobody who was unfamiliar with the territory, and in his right mind, would ever dare to walk through the forest in the dark, unless they did know their way around, and Trishia’s gut feeling told her that must have been the case with the intruder. That made the whole situation all the more intriguing. Who had an interest in sneaking around a dark forest in the middle of the night?
“Paul, I want you and Greg to stay here tonight. We might be lucky and see him come back to…do whatever he wanted to in the first place.”
Paul O’Connor slowly nodded and cast a look at his partner, Greg Jamieson, who shrugged his shoulders and sent him a relaxed grin. Paul knew Greg loved camping out and the assignment Trishia was giving them was an easy one.
“Sure thing, Trish. We’ll be keeping the ladies safe, no worries.”
“I’ve no worries about that, mate,” Trishia answered with a twinkle in her eyes. “The ladies will be coming with me, so, I’m sure they’ll be alright. I want the two of you to secure this place and, as soon as daylight breaks, I want you to have another look around. It’s possible we missed some clues because of the darkness.”
Sending his partner a disappointed look, Greg suppressed a sigh and nodded quietly. He really liked Trishia and he admired her instincts and sharp mind, but sometimes he wished she wasn’t so smart.
“What do you want Mac and me to do?” Jennifer asked.
“I want the two of you to go down the mountain. Keep an eye on the road that leads up to this place. There’s only one, so that shouldn’t be so hard. This is a private road so I want you to stop and question anyone who goes up or comes down. Any questions?”
“No, we’re on it, Trish,” Mac Drummond answered in a deep voice. He pushed his tall, solid frame away from the car and opened the door, gesturing to his partner to follow his example. Mac was a man of few words, but Trishia had come to know him as a reliable, trustworthy police officer, who stood for what he believed. What she didn’t know was that Mac Drummond had asked for a transfer to her department after he had heard about her role in Martin Coles’ case, who had been responsible for the death of Alice Wilson’s mother and brother and some runaway teenage girls. The case had made his blood run cold, but it had made him decide that Trishia Waters was the superior officer he wanted to work for. In his eyes, she was a heroine, which was something he would never say out loud.
Trishia watched the car with Mac and Jennifer slowly follow the winding track that would lead them back to the foot of the mountain. Only when the car’s taillights had disappeared from sight, did she turn around and strolled back to the office building, still deep in thought.
As soon as she stepped into the light, two pairs of, almost identical eyes, were raised and Trishia couldn’t help grinning. Ever since the first time she had met the McDonnell, the resemblance between Lucy and Fiona had amazed her. The only differences between the two sisters were their ages and the amount of freckles. Lucy’s skin was flawless, while Fiona’s was liberally dotted with the little, brown specks. Other than that, they could have been twins.
“Are you laughing at my injuries?” Fiona asked, knowing her protective sister-in-law would never do such a thing. But, it was nice to tease her about it anyway.
“I’d never do that,” Trishia predictably answered, ready to defend herself, until she saw the amusement in Lucy’s eyes and knew that Fiona was yanking her chain, once again.
Trishia resisted the urge to stick out her tongue. Instead, she took a seat next to her lover and cast a look at Fiona’s face that finally had been cleansed from all the blood. Robin had just finished putting the last band-aid on a cut in her chin and had stood up to clear away the first-aid kit.
“Thank you, Robin,” Fiona spoke with genuine gratitude.
The manager just sent her a small smile, before turning around and walking towards the tiny bathroom in the corner, where she could dispose of the soiled water and wash her hands.
Fiona sucked in her bottom lip and a small frown appeared between her brows when she watched Robin walk away.
What was bothering Robin Adams so much? Fiona knew there was something, but she had not been able to pinpoint the exact problem yet. During the day, Robin had either been friendly and kind to her, or just plain hostile. Fiona knew her own attitude sometimes offended people, but she had tried to be nice to Robin and she had left her sarcastic remarks behind. Well, most of them anyway.
“Are you? Fiona?”
Fiona suddenly sat straight up in her chair and shot Trishia an almost bewildered look.
“Visiting that same place Robin just returned from?” Lucy teased
Fiona ignored Lucy’s remark and turned to Trishia. Her dark eyes were hooded when she looked up at her sister-in-law, but Trishia just smiled and gently squeezed Fiona’s shoulder.
“Are you alright? Does your head hurt? How are your eyes? Any complaints?”
“I’m fine, Trish,” Fiona answered, cautiously rubbing her forehead. “Other than the cuts in my face, I’m alright. I don’t know what came flying through that window but whatever it was, it didn’t hit me.”
“Good, I’m glad,” Trishia smiled, switching on the flashlight she was holding and aiming it towards a dark corner. “There must be something here that will give us a clue about that.”
Joshua silently pulled another flashlight from a shelf and assisted Trishia in her meticulous search of the floor. Stepping over Fiona’s sleeping bag, they scanned every square centimeter of the small building, without finding any trace of a projectile that could have been used in shattering the window.
The door of the tiny bathroom opened and Robin emerged, drying her hands on a clean towel. She seemed a lot more relaxed, Lucy observed, while she intercepted the tentative, almost shy smile Robin sent her youngest sister.
As the manager walked back into the room, she dodged a piece of glass that was laying on the floor and nearly lost her balance. She would have tripped if she had not put a hand out to seek support against the wall.
Joshua grinned and slowly shook his head. His sister usually wasn’t that clumsy. He was about to make a teasing remark, when Robin pulled away from the wall as if she had burnt her hand.
“Umm…Trishia?” she softly spoke, while her eyes never left a certain area of the wall. “Can you please have a look at this? Is this what I think it is?”
“What do you think it is, Robin?” Trishia asked, walking towards where the manager was still standing.
“A bullet hole?”
Fiona and Lucy looked at each other with wide eyes. A bullet hole? And if that knowledge wasn’t shocking enough already, how in the name of everything that is sacred did Robin and Trishia know each other?
Lucy took in a deep breath and her eyes slowly traveled to her partner’s thoughtful face.
“I have a few questions, Senior-Sergeant Waters,” her voice broke the silence.
Yarra Kirby smiled, her dark-brown eyes shining with happiness when she cast a look at the blonde who was sitting next to her. Alice Wilson’s blue eyes sparkled when she caught the glance that was sent her way. It always was such a pleasure to see the expression on Yarra’s face when they drove up the hill to Murrook Farm.
“Happy to be home?” she asked with a smile, already knowing the answer.
“Extremely,” Yarra answered. “It’s kind of strange, though. I grew up at the foot of this hill and this forest, well, I’ve always considered it ‘mine’,” she chuckled. “And now all the land is owned by a couple I’ve come to love as my own family. I think…,” Yarra hesitated for a moment and then realized it was Alice she was talking to. There was nothing she and Alice couldn’t talk about.
“I think the mountain had been waiting for them. After Jody and Sam moved in here, it seems like the leaves on the tree are greener, the birds seem to sing clearer, it’s like nature has been doing it’s best to make a good impression on them.” Yarra paused for a moment and glanced aside. “Does that sound weird?”
“No, honey, it doesn’t,” Alice smiled warmly. “Coming from you, that’s a huge compliment.”
“They look after the land,” Yarra happily sighed. “They respect it and that’s so important. I’m glad Sam bought Booyong Mountain as well.”
“Booyong mountain?” Alice echoed. “I thought it was called differently. Kaiala, or something like that.”
“That’s the previous name,” Yarra explained. “I don’t know what Sam will start calling the resort, but my family always called it Booyong mountain, because of all the Booyong trees. They are beautiful. I’ll have to take you up there and show you my favorite tree.”
Alice smiled. It didn’t surprise her Yarra had a favorite tree. She had never met a person with a stronger love for the land than Yarra Kirby, The recently graduated veterinarian had lived for the moment she would graduate. Yarra’s dream was to look after the local wildlife and contribute to conserving the rainforest, with all its intriguing and colorful inhabitants.
“I’d love to see it,” Alice answered, reaching out and lovingly patting Yarra’s thigh. ‘It must be a special tree.”
“Oh, it is,” Yarra nodded. “It’s not easy to reach it, but I promise it will be worth the hike.”
“Somehow I knew that would be the case,” Alice laughed. “You hardly do anything the easy way, do you, love?”
Yarra smiled and enjoyed the warmth she felt flooding through her body, after Alice’s term of endearment. The past few years had been very busy. They had both been absorbed by their respective studies and sometimes days went by without a chance to see each other, even though they lived in the same house. But Yarra and Alice had always made sure they spent at least the weekend together. And they came home at least once a month. Staying away from their friends and family for longer than a month was hard on both on them. Especially for Alice, who had practically been adopted by Jody and Sam and who adored Taryn and Timothy, a feeling that was mutual.
“I wonder what Fiona is up to,” Alice mused, looking forward to seeing her and Yarra’s best friend again. The last time they had come home for a visit, Fiona had not been there and Alice had missed her company. Somehow e-mails and the occasional phone call were not the same.
“Who knows, with Fiona,” Yarra answered, steering her car around the last corner. In the distance they could see the form of the white house, surrounded by huge trees. “Looks like she’s around this time,” Yarra remarked, pointing at the car that was parked on the side of the apartment that was located halfway up the hill. It was close enough to the main house to be considered part of the property, but far enough away to have its own privacy.
When Fiona had asked Sam and Jody if she could use one of the apartment’s rooms as a studio, Sam had suggested her sister-in-law move in. According to Sam, it was so she could watch Fiona and keep her out of trouble, but Jody knew better. Ever since her parents had divorced, Fiona had lived with their mother. Two years ago Michael McDonnell had taken a stand against his father, who had willingly kept his son from having any contact with his two eldest sisters. He had left David McDonnell and had moved in with his mother and sister, taking up the only spare room. Joan McDonnell’s house was not very big and she had refused Sam’s offer to buy a bigger house for the three of them. In Joan’s eyes, Sam had done enough already, by paying for Michael’s education. It was her son’s dream to become a pediatrician and Sam’s generosity had given him the chance, which he had taken with both hands. He was in his second year of Medical School and was doing exceedingly well, much to his mother’s pride and joy.
Jody had been grateful to have her youngest sister close by. She knew Fiona craved privacy and freedom and living in the apartment would give her both, while Jody could keep an eye on her sister and make sure she was alright.
“Do you want to stop and say ‘hi’?” Alice asked.
“I’d love to,” Yarra grinned. “And I do hope we wake her up. I haven’t forgotten that last time she deliberately woke us up. What was it she said? ‘I didn’t drive all the way up to Brisbane for you to sleep the day away’?”
Yarra laughed and stopped the car in front of the cozy, little building that had its own wrap around veranda.
“Let’s return the favor, shall we?” she suggested with sparkling brown eyes.
“You’ re evil,” Alice responded, but her eyes were twinkling.
“But you love me anyway. Right?” Yarra whispered before kissing Alice’s cheek.
“You know I do,” Alice sighed, reaching out a hand and stroking Yarra’s face. “I do love you.”
For a moment they looked at each other quietly, while their eyes silently conveyed their feelings for each other.
“I’m sure that if I’ d kiss you now, Fiona would step out of that door and we’d never hear the end of it,” Alice whispered.
“Do we care?” Yarra softly asked, feeling herself being pulled in by the clear blue of Alice’s eyes that seemed to envelope her entire being.
“No,” was the whispered answer, before Alice’s lips found Yarra’s and they lost themselves in a kiss that was long and intense. When they finally broke the embrace, they were both gasping for breath.
“You’ re the world’s best kisser,” Yarra sighed, cupping Alice’s cheek and gently tracing the moist lips with her thumb.
“You’re biased,” Alice smiled, covering Yarra’s hand with her own. “But I’m glad you think so. Besides, you’re not so bad yourself.”
Yarra grinned and leaned in for another, quick kiss.
“Are you coming with me to wake up the brat?”
“Gladly,” Alice chuckled. “I hope she’s having a nice dream.”
“Oh, were you having one, that time she woke us up?” Yarra asked with a laugh, while she opened the door.
“You’ve no idea,” Alice mumbled, stepping out on her side of the car.
“Care to share?” Yarra teased lightly, grasping Alice’s hand when they strolled towards the front door.
“Was I in it?” she purred, close to Alice’s ear.
“As a matter of fact, yes, you were,” Alice answered, feeling her cheeks grow warm at the memory. Of course, her light blush didn’t escape Yarra’s attention.
“I’d love to hear more about it,” the dark-skinned woman said in a low voice, knowing the effect that had on Alice.
Alice cleared her throat and playfully swatted Yarra’s behind.
“You might. If you behave.”
“I always behave,” Yarra pouted, using her long legs to skip the few steps that lead up to the door. She pulled Alice a little closer and made an inviting gesture towards the door. “Do you want to do the honors?” she winked. “Just make sure it’s nice and loud.”
Alice chuckled and opened the screen door, before making a fist and pounding on the door. The sudden noise shattered the silence and Yarra and Alice chuckled when they heard a muttered curse, followed by a muffled thump.
“Ooops, I hope she didn’t hurt herself,” Alice spoke, wondering if their idea had been such a good one. “What if she…?
Alice never finished her sentence, because the door was opened and all of a sudden she and Yarra stared into the face of a total stranger. Alice’s brain worked overtime to try and remember if she had ever met the woman, who was standing in the doorway, clad in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Her shoulder-length brown hair had obviously not been brushed yet and the hazel eyes squinted against the bright sunlight that liberally painted the veranda in a golden glow.
“Umm, I’m sorry,” Yarra spoke softly. “We saw Fiona’s car and thought that…well, I’m sorry, we didn’t know that…”
“C.J._ Alice,” a sleepy, but happy voice suddenly sounded from behind the strange woman, who was gently pushed aside by Fiona, who practically jumped into the arms of her best friends.
“This is a great surprise_ I didn’t know you two were coming home this weekend.”
“You didn’t get my message?” Alice asked with a laugh. One of Fiona’s bad habits was to ignore the blinking light of her answering machine.
“I wasn’t home yesterday,” Fiona explained with her arm wrapped around Yarra’s shoulders. “I came home…pff,” Fiona blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, it was late. We had a busy night.”
“You did, huh? It looks like you got into a fight. What the heck happened, Fi?” Yarra responded with a worried frown, sending Fiona a quizzical look.
The dark-green eyes went wide and both Yarra and Alice detected something in their friend’s eyes that bordered on shyness.
“Nothing much. Oh, um…I’m sorry, this is Robin,” Fiona uncharacteristically stammered, having seen the look Yarra and Alice exchanged. “Robin Adams. Robin, this pretty lady here is Yarra Kirby and the gorgeous blonde is Alice Wilson. They’re my best friends.”
“Nice to meet you both,” Robin smiled, which gave her face a totally different expression. It even painted a sparkle in her eyes and Alice reflexively smiled back.
“Nice to meet you, Robin,” she spoke with genuine warmth. “Again, we’ re sorry. We didn’t know Fiona had a guest.”
“Guests,” Fiona immediately corrected, grinning when she saw the confusion on her friends’ faces. “Robin’s brother, Joshua, is here as well.”
“Alright, Red,” Yarra sighed, using Fiona’s family nickname. “You’ re waiting for us to ask you for an explanation, aren’t you?”
“Sort of,” Fiona answered with a crooked smile. “But you know how much I hate to repeat myself, so, why don’t you take your woman up to the house and wait there for me, because I’m sure Sam and Jody want to know a thing or two as well. In the meantime, I’ll have a shower and try to make myself presentable. My…guestsss…and I will join you for breakfast.”
“Whatever happened to your face sure didn’t affect your brain. Or your appetite,” Yarra mumbled, making both Alice and Robin laugh.
“Come on, honey, we’ re not wanted here,” Yarra winked at Alice. “Let’s leave poor Robin and her brother in the care of Fiona. If there’s anything you need,” she added, looking at Robin. “Just open the door and yell. We’d understand. We’ ve all been trying to teach Fiona some manners, but unfortunately our wise and well-meant lessons have had no impact yet. But we’ re still hopeful.”
“Scoot,” Fiona grinned, giving Yarra a playful shove. “Or I’ll tell Alice about that time Jeremy Saunders tried to kiss you.”
“Tried to?” Yarra answered with wide eyes. “He did_ And it was gross. And I did tell Alice about that, thank you very much, Miss Snitch.”
“Was that the time you wiped your mouth with the back of your hand, saying ‘Yuck’?” Alice laughed.
“Exactly,” Yarra nodded. She cast a look at the laughing Fiona and softly snorted.
“Alice and I don’t have secrets from each other,” she spoke, before turning on her heels and jumping off the veranda.
“Come on, baby, I can smell Jody’s coffee. Let’s go have a cup and gossip about Fiona.”
With a chuckle, Fiona watched her friends stroll back to the car and head up the mountain, to the top of the hill, where Kurt came bouncing down the road, intent on greeting two of his favorite humans.
Closing the door with a small sigh, Fiona turned around and almost bumped into Robin, who was staring at her with a thoughtful expression on her face. Raising one eyebrow, Fiona folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the doorsill. The look Robin gave her told her the other woman had something on her mind and Fiona decided to wait patiently until Robin spoke, secretly preparing herself for another confrontation.
Whatever she had expected, it wasn’t the next words, spoken softly, with a world of emotion behind the low timbre.
“You have nice friends.”
Somewhat stunned, Fiona opened her mouth, but she didn’t really know how to respond, so she just nodded, feeling more than a little foolish by her lack of words.
“You wouldn’t be able to find two other people with such pure souls,” she finally responded. “Well, except for my Mom and big sister, of course,” she added with a chuckle.
“Not Lucy?” Robin asked curiously, intrigued by the way Fiona had interacted with her friends. It had been so totally different from the aloof, cynical photographer she had met the previous day.
“No, not Lucy,” Fiona grinned. “She’s too much like me. We were denied a membership to the ‘sweet girls club’, but that’s fine with us. Well, at least with me. Of course I can’t speak for Lucy. I’d like to think the world needs cynics like us, to keep the balance.”
Robin slowly nodded, while her eyes took in Fiona’s relaxed form, with the disheveled, shoulder-length hair, bright-green tank-top and black shorts. Even after just a few hours of sleep, Fiona seemed wide awake and full of self-confidence. Robin couldn’t help wonder how much of that was just a facade.
“It must be pretty safe,” she finally spoke, observing Fiona closely and seeing the dark-green eyes take on a hooded expression.
“It must give you a nice sense of security, to believe the world needs cynics.”
Fiona moistened her suddenly dry lips and was aware of the slightly nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. But no matter how uncomfortable Robin Adams made her feel, this was no time to back down.
Unconsciously lifting her chin in a defiant position, she raised both eyebrows and shot Robin a cool, almost cold glance.
“Would you care to elaborate on those words?” she calmly asked, making a mental note to not wipe her sweaty palms on her shorts.
“Belonging to the ‘sweet girls club’ probably requires being open and vulnerable. The impression I have about you is that you’ re neither open nor vulnerable. Being a cynic is good defense mechanism, don’t you think?” Robin said softly, almost friendly, with obvious understanding.
Fiona was bombarded in a tidal-wave of emotions. In spite of her sleep-wear, she almost felt naked in front of Robin and that feeling of helplessness caused her anger to bubble up inside. Robin knew, by just looking at the dark-haired woman in front of her that she had put her finger on a very sensitive spot.
Robin suppressed a smile when she noticed how Fiona was struggling to push away the anger that was flashing in her eyes and silently she commended the young photographer for her self-control.
“Don’t tell me you’ re also a psychologist,” Fiona finally managed to speak and only people who knew her very well, could have heard the barely audible quiver in her voice.
“No, I’m not,” Robin smiled. “Call it ‘experience’.”
“Oh, really?” Fiona remarked coolly. “What happened? You saw the light and now you’re going for the membership?”
Robin nibbled on her bottom lip and slowly shook her head.
“No, I’m still far from being accepted into that club. However, my experience taught me that being cynical might have been a good defense, but it kept the good things in life out as well.”
Robin took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She had no idea why she was telling Fiona this, but somehow it seemed important. By the expression on Fiona’s face, she could tell the tall dark-haired woman knew exactly to what she was referring.
“The love from family and friends is wonderful,” she quietly added. “But sometimes it takes the love from that one, special person to make a difference in one’s life.”
The sincerity in Robin’s voice had melted Fiona’s initial anger away and had left her feeling tired and defeated.
“The icing on the cake, huh?” she answered dryly, making Robin smile.
“Something like that, yes.”
“Well, you gave me something to think about, that’s for sure,” Fiona sighed, pushing away from the sill. “I don’t know if I should thank you for it though. Who knows, this might end up being a life-altering experience.”
Here she goes again…
“Who knows?” Robin slowly repeated, watching Fiona trot to the small kitchen.
“Do you want some juice? I’d offer you coffee, but most people politely decline when I offer to make them coffee. They usually mumble something about their stomachs.”
Robin laughed and followed Fiona into the kitchen.
“Juice would be nice, thank you. There’s nothing wrong with my stomach…yet. I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Then you’d better drink your juice and hop in the shower. Jody usually has the coffee ready by now and I don’t know about you, but I’m dying for a cup. I feel like I hardly got any sleep last night.”
“I don’t think we did,” Robin answered, sipping from her cold, sweet mango-juice. “We arrived here at…what was it? Two-thirty?”
“Something like that,” Fiona nodded. “It was quite the adventure.”
“Yes, and your face is testimony to that. How does it feel?”
Fiona experimentally scrunched up her face a few times and grinned when Robin started chuckling.
“It’s alright. It feels a little sore around those bigger cuts, but other than that, I can’t complain. It could have been a lot worse. My brain could have had ‘bullet tunnel syndrome’. So, I’m not complaining.” Fiona pulled a face and emptied her glass. “Of course Jody will freak out when she hears about it,” she added somberly.
“Lucy promised not to call her, but let you tell the story.”
“Of course she did,” Fiona grinned. “She’ ll fill in all the holes later and make it sound a lot worse than it really was. Don’t forget, she’s like me.”
“Hummm…self-knowledge is the start of wisdom,” Robin smiled.
“Great, there’s hope for me,” Fiona quipped, taking Robin’s empty glass out of her hands and putting it in the sink. “Go, have a shower. There are towels on the shelf behind the door. Just use whatever strikes your fancy.”
“Thanks,” Robin smiled. “When I’m done, I’ll drag Josh out of bed.”
“In the meantime, I’ll prepare my ‘How I survived the stalker of Booyong Mountain’ speech,” Fiona sighed, knowing that Jody and Sam would want to hear every little detail. Sam wouldn’t be happy, knowing there was a lunatic roaming around the grounds of her ‘resort-to-be’.
Suddenly she remembered the pictures she had taken the previous day and with a deep frown she walked to her camera bags, pulling out one of her digital camera’s. It only took her a few minutes to boot up her computer and while the rest of the world seemed to fade out, Fiona started to work.
With a surprised look, Sam glanced up and cast Jody a quizzical look. Outside they could hear Kurt’s happy bark and she wondered who was driving up to the house. Judging Kurt’s enthusiasm, it was a loved one.
“Could that be your Mom?” Sam asked, wiping her son’s face with a damp washcloth, which he accepted without a fight, unlike his sister, who tried to wiggle her way out of Jody’s grip.
“I don’t know, honey,” Jody answered, concentrating on the task of cleaning her daughter’s face. “Maybe it’s Yarra and Alice?”
“You think the love-birds would be up that early on a Saturday morning?” Sam teased with a grin.
“We were,” Jody answered, casting her partner an affectionate look.
“Yes, we were. We usually were awake,” Sam admitted. “But, as I recall, a lot of times we didn’t leave the bed until starvation set in.” She winked. “Or dehydration.”
“Sam_ ” Jody laughed. “That’s not…” Pausing in mid-sentence Jody sucked in a lower lip and for a moment she seemed to be deep in thought. When she looked at Sam a sunny smile appeared on her face and she nodded.
“You’re right,” she laughed. “It seems to me we did spent a lot of lazy Saturday mornings in bed.”
“And that seems a lifetime ago,” Sam sighed, lifting Timothy from his high-chair and putting the toddler on the floor.
Jody put Taryn next to her brother on the floor and wrapped her arms around her partner’s tall frame. Immediately, she felt Sam’s arms around her waist, pulling her closer.
“Do you miss it?” she softly asked, pressing her cheek against Sam’s shoulder.
“Sometimes I do,” Sam replied with honestly. “But I would never want to trade, ever. You and the twins are my life. I know our lives are busy and that’s why I treasure every moment I can spend with you.”
“You know, Samantha Stevens, three years ago I thought I could never, ever love anyone more than I loved you,” Jody mumbled, lifting her head to be able to look at her partner’s face.
“But you know what?” she smiled.
“What?” Sam softly answered.
“At the time it seemed impossible, but I love you more now, than I did then.”
Sam’s blue eyes were captured by the green of Jody’s and for a moment they allowed themselves to be lost in each other’s gaze. Until the corners of Sam’s eyes wrinkled in a smile and she gently kissed the bridge of Jody’s nose.
“That’s a whole bunch of love,” she smiled.
“It is,” Jody nodded. “And I can’t wait to see how much it will be three years from now.”
Sam let out a sigh of contentment and pulled Jody close to her body, pressing her cheek against the top of her lover’s head.
“Have you any idea how special you are, Jody McDonnell Stevens?”
“Umm, no, why don’t you tell me?” Jody chuckled.
“I will, later, when there are no distractions.” Sam promised. “Right now, there’s a car pulling up on the driveway and by the sound of it, it’s Yarra’s.”
Jody untangled herself from Sam’s loving grip and shot her partner a curious glance.
“You’ll have to teach me how you do that, recognize whose car is whose.”
Sam smiled and bent down to nip Jody’s nose playfully .
“Oh, but, honey, I can’t give away all my secrets, can I?” she said with a mock pout.
“Of course you can,” Jody answered dryly, patting Sam’s behind. “Besides, I know I can torture the truth out of you. All it takes is a long…relaxing massage and before you know it, I know everything.”
“Promises, promises,” Sam answered over her shoulder while she walked towards the door.
Jody just chuckled, enjoying their light banter. While she cleared the table from their offspring’s messy breakfast, her thoughts traveled back to that very first vacation she and Sam spent together, years ago. They had first met each other at Sam’s uncle’s house, and looking back, Jody knew it had been love at first sight. They had both been so very young. But the memories were wonderful and Jody smiled when she remembered how Sam had looked in those days; tall, tan and athletic. Always looking for ways to impress Jody. Of course that was before the accident had shattered her right leg, which had given her a slight limp.
Jody softly chuckled when she remembered the moment Sam had talked her into swinging the rope over the creek together. The feel of Sam’s cool, wet body pressed against her back, the long arms wrapped around her waist, still managed to give her goose-bumps. It had been the day after their first kiss, that special night they had been lying in the grass, watching the stars. For years that memory had been a bittersweet one, until Sam miraculously returned into her life. Now Jody could cherish her memories, grateful for the second chance they had been given.
“If I have that look on my face, say, fifteen years from the first day I met Yarra, I’ll be forever grateful,” Alice’s voice suddenly sounded next to her, startling Jody who looked up into a pair of warm, blue eyes.
“How did you know it was Sam I was thinking about?” Jody asked.
“Oh, please,” Alice laughed, rolling her eyes. “We all know that look, Jody. But don’t worry, it becomes you. You’re as beautiful as ever.”
“Stop those praises and give me a hug,” Jody laughed, opening her arms. Immediately they were filled with an enthusiastic, warm, sun-kissed blonde.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you again,” Jody sighed, giving Alice a loving squeeze. “How are you, sweetheart?”
“I’m doing great, in everything,” Alice laughed.
“So, love is still a rose-garden, filled with thornless flowers and sunshine?” Jody teased.
“More or less,” Alice chuckled, kissing Jody’s cheek before releasing her. “I’m happy, Jody. I’m really, really happy.”
Jody looked into Alice’s face with the warm smile and radiating clear blue eyes, that always reminded her of Sam. Brushing away a strand of hair from Alice’s forehead she slowly nodded and swallowed away the lump in her throat.
From day one, she and Alice had shared a special relationship that was happily accepted by all of their family and friends. Both being empathic souls, Jody had reached out to Alice when she had needed it most and without questions, or hesitation, Alice had grabbed the helpful hand, determined never to let go.
Once, Alice had told Yarra that she believed her mother had guided her to the McDonnell family, and to Jody in particular. Yarra had not answered. She had just smiled, while pulling Alice in the warm circle of her arms. It was what she had believed all along.
“Honey, you’re positively beaming,” Jody finally sighed with a happy smile. “Will you and Yarra stay here for the weekend?”
“If that’s alright with you and Sam,” Alice teased, knowing how much Jody appreciated having them around.
“I’m not responding to that remark,” Jody said, grabbing Alice’s hand and pulling her further into the kitchen. “The twins will be exhilarated to see their Awice and Yayya.”
“Still having trouble with the ‘l’ and ‘r’, huh?” Alice grinned, sinking down on her knees and opening her arms as soon as she spotted the twins, who squealed in pleasure when they recognized one of their favorite playmates.
A little while later, Yarra and Alice were sitting on the veranda, each with a happy toddler on their lap, while Sam and Jody were sipping their coffee, enjoying the antics of their twins.
“I can’t wait to hear what Fiona has to tell,” Yarra remarked, looking at Jody over Timothy’s head. “Judging from her face, it will probably be good”
“What do you mean?” Jody asked with a puzzled frown. “When did you see Fiona?”
Yarra suddenly realized that Jody and Sam probably knew as much as she and Alice did, nothing. Her dark eyes traveled from Jody to Alice and back again, while she searched for the right words. The last thing she wanted to do was to worry or upset her friend.
“On our way up here, we stopped at the apartment, to give Fiona a wake up call.”
“She’s home?” Sam interrupted, glancing at the small building halfway up from the bottom of the long driveway.
“Yes, apparently they got home real late. We woke them up,” Yarra explained.
“Them?” Jody echoed with surprise.
“We met Robin Adams down there and, apparently, her brother is there as well,” Alice softly spoke, wondering what Fiona had gotten herself into this time.
“Robin and Joshua?” Sam asked, jumping up and staring at the apartment as if the cute, little house could give her any answers. “What happened? As far as we knew, they were all up at the new resort. Fiona went there yesterday. Where the heck is her car?”
“It’s on the other side of the house, Sam,” Alice answered. “That’s why you didn’t know she was there.”
“Knowing Fiona, she had a reason to park there,” Jody mumbled.
“What the heck is going on?” Sam sighed. “I guess I’ll go down there and see what’s up.”
“They’ll be here soon, Sam,”Alice replied in a soothing voice, noticing the tall blonde had become a little agitated. “Fiona said they’d take a shower and then they’d come over here for coffee.”
“And breakfast, no doubt,” Jody smiled.
“It’s those fluffy scrambled eggs, Jody,” Alice teased. “We all love those.”
“Oh, I see,” Jody chuckled. “The eggs are the secret. I was wondering why so many family members keep showing up on Saturday mornings. Now I know.” Jody raked her fingers through her reddish-blond hair and cast a look at Sam, who was still standing, with both hands leaning on the railing, staring at the little house. “Sam, honey, sit down. I’m sure Fiona will be here soon, just give her a few minutes, alright?”
With a deep sigh, Sam turned around and sank her tall frame into the chair next to Jody. Immediately, her hand was gripped by her partner, who gave it an encouraging squeeze.
“Whatever happened, they are all here, sweetie,” Jody softly spoke. “That’s the main thing. Right?”
“Yes, you’ re right,” Sam sighed. “But I can’t help it, I’ve this…gut feeling, that something is not right. It started yesterday, when that guy called in sick.”
Sam managed to send her partner a loving smile and raised Jody’s hand to kiss her palm.
“I’ll be a good girl and wait for Fiona to show up,” she promised. “I just hope we’re not plunged into another adventure.”
“Amen to that,” Alice sighed.
Fiona stared at the monitor intently. She had enlarged the picture several times and thanks to her nifty software, she had been able to enhance it until it was as clear as she could get it.
It was still very dark and blurry, but the form of a human figure between the dense green of the bush, could easily be detected. Fiona knew she had been lucky. She had been able to capture the intruder on camera the moment the stranger had been visible between two trees. Only the upper body and head were somewhat visible, the rest was behind a bush. But it was the upper part Fiona was most interested in anyway, especially the head. She had secretly hoped she would have been able to see a face, but to her astonishment, the person had been wearing a ski-mask that almost covered the entire face, except for the eyes.
Fiona swallowed hard when she stared at the monitor in front of her, while her fingers nervously tapped her desk. She couldn’t help it, the picture gave her a very uneasy feeling and she wondered if the dark form she was staring at, had been responsible for the shattering of the window. For shooting. At her.
“What’s that?” Robin’s voice suddenly sounded behind her, making Fiona almost jump up from her chair.
Pressing her hand against her chest, Fiona sank back in her chair and let out a shaky breath. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest and, breathing in deeply, she tried to calm down.
“You scared the…heck out of me,” she finally sighed, casting Robin an accusing look.
“I’m sorry, ” Robin mumbled. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know you hadn’t heard me come in.”
“I was in a trance,” Fiona joked, pushing her hair away from her forehead. She cast a look at Robin, who was clad in khaki colored shorts and a matching t-shirt. Fiona smiled when she noticed the damp hair.
“Your hair curls.”
Feeling a little self-conscious, Robin pushed her hair back and nodded. Leave it up to Fiona McDonnell suddenly to change the subject.
“Um, yes, it does, especially when it’s wet,” Robin explained absent-mindedly. The picture on the monitor still had her interest. “I usually brush them out when my hair dries.”
“Pity,” Fiona answered cheerfully, turning around in her chair and pointing at the screen. “This is a picture I took yesterday, when I saw somebody down the hill. Remember?”
“Uh…well, yes…yes, I remember,” Robin stammered, feeling like a fool. What was it about Fiona that caused her to make an idiot out of herself all the time?
“I blew the picture up a bit and this is the result,” Fiona explained.
“It gives me the creeps,” Robin mumbled, staring at the screen with a concerned expression. “Wait. You took this picture yesterday? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t know if I could trust you,” Fiona answered with blunt honesty.
“Oh,” was all Robin could utter. Rubbing her tired eyes, she tried to process Fiona’s words, trying not to be annoyed with the photographer.
“And you do now?” she asked after a brief silence. “Trust me, I mean?”
Fiona turned around in her chair and looked up at Robin, who was standing behind her. The dark-green eyes were open and honest when she slowly nodded.
“Yes, I do trust you,” was the simple answer. “I have no reason not to.”
Even though Robin rapidly started to feel uneasy under Fiona’s gaze, she made a conscious effort not to cast down her eyes and shuffle her feet like a little girl. It was good to know Fiona McDonnell trusted her. Robin felt she didn’t deserve that trust, not after the way she had treated the photographer the previous day. Fiona knew nothing about her or her past and she had no intention at all to bring up those subjects. She didn’t want to return to what she had left behind. The memories and occasional nightmare were more than enough to bear.
Sam knew. She had told her when they had met for the interview. It had been hard, very hard, but Samantha Stevens was not the average person, Robin had noticed. The tall blonde had approached Robin with a mixture of business-like attitude and compassion. It had been refreshing. Especially after Sam had decided that Robin would be an excellent candidate for the job.
They had quickly worked out some logistical problems and only one week later Robin and Joshua had picked up their belongings to move to the mountain. To Robin, it still felt like a dream. The opportunity Sam had given her was a golden one and she wanted to do her utmost to make sure Sam would never regret hiring her as a manager.
Robin moistened her dry lips and wondered how much of an impact the events of the previous day and night would have on her future as an employee of Stevens, Inc. Whatever problem she had anticipated, she never could have imagined that some intruder would shoot at Fiona.
Robin took a deep breath and forced down the nauseous feeling that was beginning to settle in the pit of her stomach.
What if the bullet that had missed Fiona had been meant for her? Or worse, for Joshua?
Robin suddenly felt the blood drain out of her face, leaving her dizzy, and she blindly reached out her hand for support to keep herself from toppling over.
“Hey_ What’s the matter?” Fiona exclaimed worriedly.
The photographer’s reflexes were excellent and as soon as Fiona noticed that Robin was starting to sway, she jumped up, grabbed Robin’s arm with one hand, while the other hand turned around her chair and pressed the other woman gently, but determinedly down in the seat.
“Are you alright?” Fiona’s voice seemed to float to her through a thick fog and Robin tried to answer, but it seemed like her throat was constricted by an invisible, tight band.
“Put your head down,” Fiona advised, starting to become a little more worried by the lack of response. “Come on, Robin,” she urged and Robin felt a warm hand on the back of her head gently pushing her forward, until she was leaning over enough to feel the blood rush back to her head.
“It’s…I’m better,” she finally managed to utter in a hoarse voice. “I’m sorry about that, I…”
“Ssh, don’t speak,” Fiona interrupted. “Come back up slowly and take a deep breath, alright?”
Robin nodded and she inhaled deeply when she slowly raised up again. The horrible faint feeling had disappeared and with slightly trembling fingers she raked through her damp, curly hair.
“Are you alright?” Fiona asked, kneeling down next to the chair. “Are you sure?” she added when she saw Robin nod.
“I’m fine. Thank you, Fiona. I’m not sure what happened.”
“You just went real pale all of a sudden and I thought you’d fall over,”Fiona explained. “And I didn’t even tell a bad joke.”
Robin smiled and sent Fiona a grateful look. According to the photographer’s own words, Fiona was a cynic, but again Robin wondered how much of that was an act. Fiona’s gentle humor was soothing.
“I guess it was the part about you trusting me,” Robin quipped, relieved to feel her strength return again.
“I’m sure that had nothing to do with it,” Fiona chuckled. “But to be clear on the subject, I did mean it.”
“Thank you,” Robin simply answered, grateful for the fact that Fiona didn’t push for the reason of her fainting spell.
“You’ re welcome,” Fiona answered. “Are you sure you’ re alright? Do you want me to get you something to drink? I know in the movies they always come running back with a glass of water.”
“No thanks,” Robin sighed. “I’m fine now. I really am, but I appreciate the offer.”
Robin’s eyes drifted back to the monitor, but the disturbing photo had disappeared and the screen was filled with a picture of two toddlers, who were snuggled up together underneath a baby blanket. Two pairs of sleepy eyes looked straight into the lens. The gaze in the boy’s blue eyes was one of complete trust and affection, while the green eyes of the girl showed a spark of what Robin only could describe as humor.
I’ve seen that look before.
The only thing that seemed to be missing was one raised eyebrow.
“They’re so cute,” Robin smiled. “The boy reminds me of Sam.”
“It’s my favorite screen saver,” Fiona answered and Robin could hear the warmth and pride in her voice. “The boy is Timothy, Sam’s son, the girl is his twin sister, Taryn. You’ ll be meeting them as soon as we get up to the house.”
“Can I see that picture again? The one you took yesterday ?”
“Sure,” Fiona answered. She reached passed Robin and tapped the keyboard. Immediately the screen was filled with the stranger in the ski-mask.
“Are you going to show this to Sam?” Robin asked softly.
“Yes, I think I’ll have to. Don’t you?”
“Yes, she should know,” Robin sighed. “I just hope she won’t be upset about it.”
“Oh, but she will be,” Fiona answered with confidence. “I know Sam and she’ll be very upset about all this. Just not with us. In fact, I’ll be surprised if she let’s us go back up there any time soon.”
Robin nodded, it’s what she was expecting as well. Sam would not let them return and she wondered if this would be the end of her, very short career as a manager. The events of last night could easily make her lose her job and that thought hurt. Badly. Robin had only spent three days on the mountain, but she loved it and she knew Joshua did too.
Maybe Sam would give her a few days to look for another place to live and hopefully another job. There weren’t exactly a lot of jobs within her field of expertise, but she could always wait tables. It wasn’t like she hadn’t done anything like that before.
The last thing she wanted was to return back home. Defeated.
Unconsciously, Robin lifted her chin.
Going back home was not an option.
“Well, well, well, look who finally managed to get up and around,” Sam couldn’t help saying, when she noticed three people emerging from the little house at the end of the driveway.
Sam wouldn’t admit it, but she was a little tense. The fact that Robin Adams had left the mountain and, together with her brother, had spent the night at Fiona’s place, worried her. Something must have happened and she had a bad feeling about it. Another factor that bothered her was that, no matter what had happened, nobody had deemed it necessary to inform her about anything.
Sam’s clear blue eyes traveled to Jody, who, as always, seemed to sense her mood and was sending her a warning glance. Even though her partner did not say a word, Sam knew exactly what message she was trying to convey: Let them explain first, then ask questions.
With a smile, Sam nodded and Jody silently blew her a kiss.
It was funny, Sam mused, that a simple little gesture like that could make her feel so much better. It was like a burden had instantly been lifted from her shoulders and things suddenly didn’t seem so bad anymore.
Only when Fiona, Joshua and Robin were halfway up the driveway, accompanied by a bouncing Kurt, Jody and Sam noticed the small cuts and band-aids on Fiona’s face.
“What the…?” Jody mumbled, rising up from her chair and walking towards the three steps that lead up to the veranda. Sam was following her closely.
As soon as Fiona made eye-contact with her eldest sister, she noticed the concern and unspoken questions in Jody’s eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” she called out. “We’ll tell you all about it over a cup of coffee.”
But Sam wasn’t sure she could wait that long. Her eyes traveled from Fiona’s face to Robin and back again. It was clear that Robin felt anything but at ease and that only contributed to Sam’s concerns.
“Maybe Robin and I should talk in the office,” she suggested, not noticing how Robin suddenly cast down her eyes to hide the look of anxiety and guilt that crossed her face.
Fiona, who had reached the veranda, put a hand on Sam’s arm and looked up at her sister-in-law. Her eyes were almost pleading.
“Can we first have some coffee? Please?” she asked. “You can grill us later, right now we need some sustenance.”
“I think that…,” Sam caught Jody’s eyes and she sighed. “Sure, sure, I’m sorry. Of course. Come on up, Robin and Joshua. And Fiona, of course,” she added with a grin. “I’m acting like a jerk, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Sam,” Fiona answered cheerfully, giving the tall blonde a quick hug. “We forgive you.”
“Thanks,” Sam mumbled while rolling her eyes. “You’ve no idea how much that means to me.”
“Oh, but I do,” Fiona answered. “Since I’m the family jerk most of the time.”
“I’m not going into that,” Sam chuckled. “That’s like kicking in an open- door.”
Sam walked towards Jody and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“Jody, this is Robin Adams and her brother Joshua. Robin, Josh, this is Jody, my wife.”
If the siblings were surprised or shocked about the introduction, they didn’t show it. With a smile, Jody greeted their visitors, immediately winning their hearts with her genuine warmth and friendliness.
“So you’ re Fiona’s ‘big sister?” Robin smiled.
“Only in years,” Fiona grinned, quickly kissing Jody’s cheek and dropping the envelope she had been carrying on the table, before falling down in a chair next to Yarra and tickling her nephew’s belly.
“Honey, what happened? ” Jody asked, cupping Fiona’s face between her hands while her eyes scanned the freckled skin.
“I had a…disagreement with some glass,” Fiona answered lightly. “It’s no big deal, really.”
“Did you go to the hospital?”
Fiona pulled a face and shook her head.
“You know how much I hate hospitals. No, Robin had a first-aid kit and she cleaned me up. She did a better job than Lucy would have done, so I’m okay.”
“Lucy?” Sam echoed. “What has Lucy to do with all of this?”
Fiona cast a look at Robin who seemed to be lost in thought and in no hurry to give an explanation. Turning to Sam she opened her mouth to say something, but Sam raised her hands and shook her head.
“No, wait. I want to hear the whole story, from the beginning. I’ll get the coffee first and then we’ll talk.”
“Sounds like a plan to me, Sammy,” Fiona sighed, leaning back in her chair and briefly closing her eyes. She felt tired.
It was going to be a long day.
During Robin’s, Joshua’s and Fiona’s relating of the events, Sam had been listening quietly. Her blue eyes were calm, when they traveled from Fiona to Robin and back again. Only Jody was able to notice the turmoil that was brewing behind the carefully placed mask of self-control.
Reaching out a hand, Jody covered Sam’s fingers and immediately felt her hand disappear in the firm grasp of Sam’s larger one. The long fingers were unusually cold and Jody looked up at her partner with a worried glance.
Sam caught the look of concern that was sent her way and managed to muster up a reassuring smile, but she could not fool her partner. Jody was able to read her like nobody else could and she knew that the tall blonde was upset. To say the least.
Tightening her hold on Jody’s hand, Sam silently made a decision and exhaled slowly.
“Alright, the first thing I’ve decided is to forbid each and every one of you to go back up that mountain, until either the police says it’s safe or the…person…who fired that shot is caught. Is that clear?”
Robin glanced aside in her brother’s sad eyes and slowly nodded.
“Yes, Sam, that’s clear,” she softly answered, wondering where Joshua and she would spend the night. Or where their next meal would come from. She did have some money she had been saving, but that was a resource she really didn’t want to touch. It was money Joshua would need when he went to the university.
Sam’s eyes traveled to Fiona, who looked at her with innocent dark-green eyes. But Sam was not fooled easily and the expression on her face turned into a stern one.
“Yes, Sam?” The photographer answered and Alice, who was sitting next to her, sighed deeply, exchanging a worried glance with Jody.
“Please promise me you won’t go back up there, unless you’ re told it’s safe to do so.”
“But Sam, I…”
Sam’s voice was a lot more forceful this time and both Timothy and Taryn looked up at their mother with big, startled eyes.
” Alright, alright,” Fiona finally sighed, holding her hands up in resignation.
“Please, Fiona, promise us,” Jody’s soft voice suddenly sounded and when Fiona looked up, Jody’s eyes were dark with worry. She would never admit it, but disappointing her eldest sister was something Fiona didn’t like to do. She loved and admired Jody deeply and would never hurt her intentionally.
“I promise,” she spoke softly and Jody slowly nodded.
“Thank you, sweetie,” she said with a small smile.
Sam gave Jody’s hand a gentle squeeze, before she let go and unfolded her long frame from the chair. She almost winced when she felt a painful pull in the muscles of her right calf. The unexpected events had her very worried and Sam knew that as soon as tension built in her body, her right leg would start to hurt.
“Honey?” Jody sounded softly and with a smile Sam looked down in the eyes she loved so much.
“I’m alright, love, just a little stiff,” Sam answered, knowing Jody had noticed the small limp.
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Jody had to suppress a chuckle. Sam could be gnashing her teeth in agony and still say she was doing fine. It was the tough act Jody had learned to see through and she made a mental note to try and catch Sam alone later and massage the painful knots in her leg away.
“Robin, can we talk in my office?” Sam suggested in a friendly way and Robin slowly nodded, while getting up from her chair. She had expected this and decided she was as prepared as she could be.
“Of course, Sam,” she politely answered, avoiding a questioning look from a pair of dark-green eyes.
The two women left the veranda in silence and Joshua stared at the back of the retreating Robin with sad eyes. He plucked his shorts with nervous fingers and with his unruly hair almost falling into his eyes, he looked like a little, lost boy and Jody’s heart went out to the teenager.
“Are you hungry, Joshua?” she asked gently, immediately seeing his eyes lit up.
“A little,” he grinned.
“A little?” Fiona chuckled. “I’m starving, mate. We haven’t had anything to eat since…let me think here for a moment…yesterday afternoon. Baked beans, if I remember correctly.”
“What? Don’t you like baked beans, Fi?” Yarra teased, having shared enough campfire meals with her friend to know she hated beans.
“She did eat the bacon,” Joshua helpfully provided, which earned him a playful slap from the photographer.
“Don’t tell them that,” Fiona stage-whispered with twinkling eyes. “Everything you say here can and will be used against you.”
“Thanks for the advice, but this was about you, not me” Joshua quipped, making everybody laugh.
“Touché, Fiona,” Yarra laughed. “I see you found yourself a verbal sparring partner.”
“Think what you want,” Fiona snorted, enjoying the bantering. “I’m going easy on him because he’s hungry and tired. Robin had to drag him out of bed after some…individuals decided to wake us up this morning.”
“Oh, poor Fiona,” Alice cooed with a laugh. “Look, Taryn, your auntie Fi is pouting. Doesn’t she look cute?”
“Jody, they’ re all teaming up against me,” Fiona whined with a mock pout. “Tell them to stop.”
“Sure, sweetie,” Jody nodded, getting up and reaching for the empty coffee pot. “You’ re safe with me, so, if you’ll help me in the kitchen, I’ll protect you.”
“That’s blackmail,” Fiona grinned, but she jumped to her feet and stretched her tired body. “But, I can hear some scrambled eggs calling my name, so I guess it’s all worth it.”
Bending down, Fiona quickly kissed a surprised Alice on her forehead and winked at Yarra, who laughed at the triumphant look her friend sent her.
“You won’t make me jealous, Red,” she chuckled, nuzzling Timothy’s soft hair and smiling at her girlfriend. “I know who she loves.”
“That’s right, stretch,” Alice laughed, looking up at Fiona with twinkling, blue eyes. “But I do appreciate the gesture. I’m happy to see you again as well.”
“Good ’cause I’ve missed you two,” Fiona admitted seriously, before turning around to follow her sister into the kitchen.
Not used to such expressions of affection, Alice and Yarra looked at each other with surprise.
“I wonder what’s gotten into her,” Yarra mumbled, but her dark eyes were smiling. “But whatever it is, I’m not complaining. I like it.”
“Sit down, Robin,” Sam invited, closing the door behind her and pulling up a chair.
Robin obeyed silently and sat down in one of the big leather chairs that adorned Sam’s office. Sitting up straight she put her hands in her lap, making sure not to fidget. Whatever Sam wanted to discuss with her in private, she would make sure that even if her job would be at stake, she would not lose her dignity. She had been through worse.
Sam had taken a seat on the edge of her desk, facing Robin. Her eyes were thoughtful, but friendly when she smiled at the younger woman, who was trying so hard not to appear nervous.
“Did Fiona give you a hard time?” she gently asked, twirling a pencil between her fingers.
Robin, who had not expected a question like that looked up at Sam with an astonished expression in her eyes, momentarily searching for an answer, while Sam waited patiently.
“Um…yes, I mean…no, no she didn’t. We…um…we did have a bit of a run-in, but that was my fault, not Fiona’s,” Robin answered honestly. “And we did settle that…afterwards. At least, I think we did,” she added with a small frown.
“You never know with Fiona,” Sam laughed. “She’s something else.”
“I’ve noticed that,” Robin smiled, wondering when Sam would get down to business and tell her to find another job.
“I’m sorry about what happened last night,” Sam softly continued. “It must have been a frightening experience.”
“It was,” Robin nodded. “I…um…I felt responsible, not only for Josh, but for Fiona as well.”
“I can understand that,” Sam answered with sigh, remembering how Little Steven Hayes had tried to kidnap Fiona a few years before, which seemed like a lifetime ago. With her quick thinking and wit, Sam had managed to keep Jody’s sister out of harm’s way, but the responsibility had weighed heavily.
Sam’s eyes caught Robin’s hazel ones and unconsciously the young manager held her breath. The blue eyes were so clear and focused, Robin felt like Sam could see straight through her.
“Before we start brainstorming and exploring the reason why somebody, anybody, would try to harm my family, or one of my employees, I want to ask you this: Can you think of anyone who’d be capable of doing this?” Sam shook her head and rubbed her forehead. “No, let me rephrase that: Can you think of anyone who could have done this?”
Robin appreciated Sam’s direct approach and honesty, but the unwanted, yet expected confrontation with her past still hurt. Deeply.
“Ever since Fiona told me she noticed someone walking through the bushes, that same question has been on my mind. Especially since our nightly visitor found it necessary to shoot at us. I’m not sure who was supposed to be the target, though,” Robin sighed and her eyes were dark with worry. “If they had someone in mind, I hope it’s me and not Joshua or Fiona,” she added barely audible. “But to answer your question: No, I can’t think of anyone. Not right now, anyway.”
“Did you talk to Trishia?”
“Briefly,” Robin answered. “We didn’t have the opportunity to discuss things in length, but I suppose she’ll have some more questions for me.”
“Most likely,” Sam nodded, familiar with her sister-in-law’s thoroughness. Trishia never did anything half. That was probably why she was on the nomination list to be promoted to Inspector. And Sam knew she deserved it. Trishia was an excellent police officer.
Sam smiled. Of course she was biased, since Trishia had saved her life.
“Are there things, details maybe, I haven’t heard yet, you want to share with me?”
Robin slowly shook her head, while she nibbled on her lower lip. She was deep in thought and Sam gave her the time to collect her thoughts. It gave her the chance to study the woman who was sitting in front of her.
Robin was dressed in a crisp white shirt that contrasted nicely with her tanned skin. Her naturally curly hair was tucked behind one ear, while a few strands playfully fell down her cheek. Every now and then she pushed them away with an impatient gesture. When she cast down her gaze, the hazel eyes were hidden by thick, dark eyelashes.
Sam decided that Robin Adams was definitely as attractive as she was intelligent and the tall blonde suppressed a sigh. Somehow she expected that, due to her past, Robin would keep everyone at arm’s length. And that thought saddened her. The young biologist deserved so much better, but Sam did not want to interfere. Although, in the back of her mind she knew one person who could have a positive influence on her withdrawn employee.
“I think we’ve told you all we know, Sam,” Robin finally answered, gazing up and quickly looking away when she noticed the intensity of Sam’s stare.
“Alright,” Sam nodded. “I’ll tell you what I’ve decided to do then.”
Here we go.
Robin inwardly cringed and mentally braced herself for the things to come.
“I want to meet with you and Trishia. Today. We need to discuss a few things and go over a few possible scenarios. Do you and Joshua have any personal belongings up the mountain?”
“No, we took it all with us when we left last night,” Robin answered in a hoarse voice, knowing what would come next.
“Good,” Sam nodded. “That means you don’t have to go back there anymore. Do you think Fiona’s apartment will do? At least for now?”
Robin’s mind did a double-take and she looked up at Sam with wide, round eyes.
“W…what do you mean?” she stammered.
“I was thinking of putting you and Joshua up in Fiona’s apartment. At least for the time being, anyway. I’m sure I can work something out with her. Although I’m not sure if she wants to leave her precious studio,” Sam added with a small frown.
“For…for how long?” Robin asked, still not sure if she understood what Sam was saying.
“Until this is over and it’s safe to go back up the mountain,” Sam explained, suddenly noticing Robin’s pale skin. “Are you alright?”
“You mean…you’ re not firing me?”
Sam shot straight up and her eyes were round, almost giving her a comic expression.
“Heavens, no! What makes you think that?”
“I…I just…,” Robin shook her head and raked her trembling fingers through her already unruly hair. “I thought you might not have any use for me anymore, since we’ll be way behind schedule, with the resort and all.”
“Oh, no, Robin. I’m sorry you thought that. I hope I didn’t give you the idea that…’
‘No, no, it wasn’t you. It was me,” Robin interrupted and she softly laughed. “It seems like I still have to work on my insecurities, huh? I was convinced you’d fire me.”
“Absolutely not,” Sam denied forcefully. “You’ re a conservation biologist, Robin. I took you aboard because I need you. That hasn’t changed.”
“I’m glad,” Robin sighed. “I would have done it if I’d needed to, but I wasn’t looking forward to waiting tables again.”
“You don’t have to,” Sam promised. “I value your knowledge about the environment and how to preserve it and I know you’ll do a great job. You can work out some things from here. We’re behind schedule with the actual restoring and building of the resort, but that’s not the end of the world.” Sam stood up from her makeshift seat on the desk and put her hand on Robin’s shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze. “I’ll call Fiona in here, so we can work out some practical issues. And I want to take a look at that picture she took.”
“Sure,” Robin nodded, closing her eyes and saying a short, but heartfelt prayer of gratitude. She still had a job.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Fiona?” Jody asked again, reaching up to take a bowl from the top shelf of one of the kitchen cabinets.
Fiona put a hand on her shoulder to stop her and reached over Jody’s head to retrieve the item. Being tall had a lot of advantages.
“Thanks,” Jody chuckled. “I love to cook when you or Sam are around.”
“That’s because you’re just not tall enough to reach those top shelves, Miss I-can-almost-reach-it-but-not-quite-yet,” Fiona teased. “And to answer your question, again, yes, dear, I’m alright. I’m fine. I’m good.”
Jody stuck out her tongue and smiled. She should have known better than to ask her ornery sister how she was doing. But seeing all those little cuts in her sister’s face had been quite the shock. Like Sam, Jody was very protective of her siblings and she hated seeing any of them getting hurt. Like Fiona, or Lucy.
Jody sighed and absentmindedly opened the door of the refrigerator to take out some butter. Staring at the top shelf, her thoughts traveled to her younger sister and a wave of sadness overtook her when she remembered Lucy’s pain, especially after her second miscarriage. She had tried to be brave, but she had not been able to visit Jody and the twins for weeks. And, in spite of knowing there had been nothing she could have done, Jody had almost felt guilty for her own happiness every time she looked at her children, held them, or read them a bedtime story.
Jody swallowed when she remembered how Lucy had apologized, almost in tears. Jody had just hugged her sister, patiently waiting until the tears had subsided. That had been a difficult day for both of them, but it had brought them closer as well and for that, Jody was grateful.
“If you leave that fridge open much longer, we’ll be seeing polar bears in the front yard,” a gentle voice suddenly startled Jody out of her reverie and when she looked up, it was in the compassionate dark-green eyes of her youngest sister.
“Oh, um…I..uh, I was thinking about something,” Jody stammered.
“That was obvious,” Fiona remarked dryly. “You keep asking me if I’m alright, but how are you doing, big sister?”
Jody knew this was a side of Fiona a lot of people never got to see, and she regretted that. There was so much more to her youngest sister than met the eye, but Fiona kept that part of her carefully hidden. It was only a select few who were allowed to see the whole person behind the aloof, carefree mask.
“I’m worried,” Jody sighed, grabbing the butter and closing the door of the refrigerator. “I’m worried about you. I’m worried about Lucy and now I’m worried about Robin and Joshua as well.”
“I wish you wouldn’t be,” Fiona replied, taking the butter out of Jody’s hands and walking towards the stove. “You don’t have to worry about me, Jody, really. I’ll be fine. And I’m sure Robin and Josh will be as well. We made it down the mountain alright and I’m sure this will all blow over. You can’t worry about every idiot who walks on the surface of this planet. You’d be grey before your time,” she smiled, casting a look over her shoulder. “And I’m worried about Lucy as well,” she added softly. “Not in the sense that I don’t think she can handle the situation, but…,” Fiona paused and tried to come up with the right words to describe how she was feeling.
“But it hurts to see her hurt,” Jody filled in with a knowing smile.
“Yes,” was the simple answer and Jody could hear the barely audible quiver in Fiona’s voice.
This is the real Fiona.
Jody walked up to Fiona and wrapped one arm around her sister’s waist, giving it a loving squeeze.
“I’m hurting for her too. I hope and pray everything will be alright. According to her gynaecologist there’s no physical reason why she had those miscarriages. She called it bad luck.”
“Well, whatever she calls it, it makes Lucy miserable, and Trish as well, don’t forget our tough police woman has a tender soul.”
“Yes, she does,” Jody smiled. “They are a cute couple.”
“Like you and Sam,” Fiona grinned. “Do you realize that you still get that…glazed look in your eyes when Sam’s around?”
“Glazed?” Jody echoed, sending Fiona a doubt filled look.
“Yes, glazed,” Fiona nodded, her dark-green eyes sparkling. “When Sam came back and the two of you kind of continued where you’d left off, I thought all the lovey-dovey stuff would wear off over time. But it hasn’t.”
“Is that a problem for you?” Jody chuckled, nudging her sister with her elbow.
“No, it’s not,” Fiona smiled, wrapping a long arm around Jody’s shoulders. “Don’t tell anyone else I said this, but it’s cute to see you and Sam together. The two of you have become the center of our family and I think that’s a good thing.”
Jody’s eyes widened in surprise when she looked up at the serious expression in her sister’s face.
“I’ve never really realized that,” she confessed.
“But it’s true,” Fiona continued. “I guess in normal families, the parents are the center, but our family is anything but normal, so it’s only…logical that you and Sam have taken over that role. Face it, sis, whenever the family just visits or gets together because of some festivity, it’s always here. And that was even before the tornados were born.”
“Mmm, I guess you’ re right,” Jody nodded. “I’ve never really looked at it that way, but I see what you mean.”
“It’s a good thing. You and Sam are great role-models,” Fiona winked.
“Well, thank you…I think,” Jody chuckled. “I hope you’ll still feel that way when Sam asks you to allow Robin and her brother to stay at your place.”
Fiona looked at her sister and her eyes widened.
“You think she’ll do that?” she asked slowly, not knowing what to feel about having other people around her studio.
“If I know Sam, yes, she will,” Jody answered. “Robin and Joshua have to stay somewhere. Unless Sam wants to put them up at The Reef, but knowing my protective partner, she’d want them somewhere close.”
“Oh, well, I guess I can understand that,” Fiona mumbled, not seeing the pleasantly surprised expression on Jody’s face. “I’m sure I could learn to share,” she continued with a frown. “Although I do think the place is kinda small for three people.”
“What about two?” Sam’s voice suddenly sounded from the doorway, surprising both Jody and Fiona.
“Two?” Fiona echoed. “I don’t know, Sam. I mean, I understand your predicament and all that, but I need to work and you know I do that at the oddest hours. I’d really like to have access to my studio.”
“I know, Fi,” Sam nodded while she walked over to Jody to wrap her arms around the smaller woman. Over the red-haired top of Jody’s head, her eyes met Fiona’s. “Yarra and Alice will be staying with us this weekend, so we only have one room left. Next week we can make some new arrangements.”
“Does that mean you’ll leave me with cute Joshua? Without supervision?” Fiona joked.
Sam raised one eyebrow and rested her chin on Jody’s head, while Fiona stared at her with twinkling eyes.
“No, not exactly,” she drawled. “I was thinking of leaving you with the cute Robin. How does that sound?”
Fiona shrugged her shoulders and stuffed her hands in the pockets of her shorts.
“I guess the fact that we haven’t killed each other yet is a good sign,” she answered with a sigh. “But I need to warn you, Sam, she can be a real…I don’t know, somehow I manage to aggravate her.”
“And that is a surprise?” Sam dead-panned.
“I guess not,” Fiona chuckled. “It seems to me it’s one of my most treasured talents.”
“Then why would it be a problem?” Sam asked with her normal down to earth sense of logic.
“It won’t,” Fiona sighed, looking down at the floor, knowing a pair of inquisitive emerald-green eyes were trying hard to see through her.
“Is there anything you want or need to tell us, Fi?” Jody asked softly. “I don’t want you or Robin to feel awkward about this arrangement.”
Fiona shook her head and tried not to sigh. When she looked up, the expression on her face was a neutral one. The one Jody knew was meant to hide what was really going on inside.
“No, it’s alright. I’ll get over it. It’s only for a couple of days anyway and I’m glad you’re not sending them to The Reef. Somehow I’d think they’d feel better here,” she answered with honesty. “And who knows what will happen, right? At least Murrook Farm has a top notch security system.”
Sam nodded and tightened her grip on Jody, whose body stiffened after Fiona’s words. It was true. The security of their place had been an important factor in her decision to let the Adams’ siblings stay at their place. She had no idea who had been sneaking around the new resort or who had fired a shot through the cabin window, but Sam did not want to take any chances. Her most important goal was to keep everyone safe. And that task would be easier if they were all close. Her smart sister-in-law had already figured that out and Sam sent her a grateful look.
“Thanks, Fi. Hopefully, you’ll have your apartment to yourself again in no time.”
“That would be great, Sam, but it’s alright, honest. Main thing is to stay out of trouble, right?”
“Yes, please,” Jody sighed, knowing her stubborn sister would be capable of going back to the mountain on her own, just to do some investigating herself. “You promised, remember?”
“I know and I’ll stick to that,” Fiona nodded. “I won’t be going out there to look for trouble.”
Trouble sometimes comes looking for me, though.
“And don’t you forget that,” Sam warned.
“I won’t,” Fiona mumbled. “Talking about trouble, I’m sure you want to see that picture I took yesterday.”
“I do,” Sam nodded. “Why don’t you get it and come to my office, so we can have a look at it.”
“Sure,” Fiona answered.
She walked towards the door to the veranda and when she passed Sam and Jody she halted, bent down and gave her sister a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Don’t worry, Pea. It’ll be alright. I’ll be good.”
Fiona disappeared and, with a sigh, Jody turned in Sam’s arms and tucked her head against the taller woman’s shoulder.
“I am worried,” she sighed. “I can’t help it.”
“So am I,” Sam confessed. “Especially, since Fiona is so affectionate at the moment. It’s scary.”
Sam smiled when she felt Jody’s body shake with silent laughter and dropped a kiss on the conveniently close head.
“She’s been getting better these last few years,” Jody defended her absent sister and Sam nodded.
“I know, I was just joking. She’s changed a lot.”
“For the better,” Jody admitted. “She still has her cynical moments, but it seems like she’s more considerate these days. But I can’t help wondering what her problem with Robin is. She seems really nice.”
“She is,” Sam agreed. “Robin has had a…very difficult time and I guess she’s still…recovering from that. I think Fiona rubs her the wrong way sometimes, but I’m sure they’ll work it out. They’ re both adults.”
“I hope you’re right,” Jody smiled, looking up into a pair of warm blue eyes. “And knowing you’ll probably have a busy day ahead of you and I won’t see much of you, why don’t you come down here and kiss me, woman?”
“Oh, that’s the best proposal I’ve had all day,” Sam smiled, dipping her head and capturing Jody’s lips in a long, heartfelt kiss.
With a deep frown, Trishia Waters stared at the dark soil that was covered with leaves and branches, which made it hard to find tracks of any kind. Stubbornly she had gone over the same area twice, only to find one indentation that resembled the imprint of the heel of a shoe. Having taken photos of the imprint, Trishia knelt down and searched the area around the print meticulously, while Paul and Gary observed her at a respectable distance. They knew when not to disturb their senior officer, who had learned tracking from the grandfather of one of her childhood friends, who had been a native Australian.
“Tall, heavy,” Trishia mumbled to herself. “Probably taller than me, most likely even taller than Sam. And a lot heavier.” She softly whistled through her teeth. “A whole lot heavier.”
Trishia slowly rose to her full length again and stared at the path that led down one side of the steep hill. It had been the intruder’s escape route, but to her frustration there were only broken branches and twigs. And the partial imprint of a shoe. It made her think that whoever had taken a shot at the girls, had excellent knowledge of the mountain and every track that lead back to the valley.
“Or night vision,” Trishia mumbled, knowing it was not hard at all to purchase the special infrared goggles that would allow a person to see in the dark. It reminded her of a scene from ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and, involuntarily, she shivered.
“Creepy,” she whispered.
Casting a look at her watch, Trishia noticed it was almost nine o’clock already and she decided to call it a day. Paul and Gary had been on the mountain all night and they had not seen or heard anything unusual.
Mac and Jennifer had kept an eye on the only track that would allow a car to drive to and from the resort, but nothing or nobody had come down. It was like the intruder had disappeared into thin air. But Trishia knew better. Whoever had been up there during the night must have had a reason to be there. It had been somebody with a plan and an escape route. And that knowledge bothered her. A lot.
Turning around, she motioned Paul and Greg to come closer and when the two policemen obediently walked closer, Trishia gave them a tired smile.
“Thanks a lot, guys, I really appreciate you being here. I know you’ re tired, but could I ask you to hang in there for another hour or so? I’m calling in a canine team. I want them to follow that track all the way down to the bottom. I need to be sure I’m not missing anything.”
“You think it’s serious, then?” Paul asked curiously.
“Yes, I do,” Trishia sighed. “It seems to me that this was all planned. Besides, our intruder fired at the girls in the cabin. I need to take it seriously.”
“Sure thing, Trish,” Greg nodded. “Paulie and I will stick around until the others are here. No worries.”
“Thanks, guys,” Trishia smiled, patting Greg’s shoulder. “I’ll make the call in the car. I’ll be right back.”
With long strides, Trishia walked towards the police car that was parked in front of the office building. With a thoughtful expression she glanced at the shattered window, feeling the anger build inside when she realized what could have happened if the bullet had hit Fiona or Robin.
Trishia opened the door of the car and exhaled slowly.
Lucy had been under the impression that she and Robin knew each other. It was a valid suspicion, since Robin had used her name without even being introduced to her. But like the manager had told Lucy, she had heard the name from Fiona and since she already had met Lucy and Jennifer Diaz, she assumed the tall woman entering the office had been Trishia. It had been a logic explanation and Lucy had accepted it.
Trishia leaned back in the car seat and smiled. Her Lucy had such a sharp mind. There was not much that went by her unnoticed. As she had told her on numerous occasions, she was convinced that Lucy would make an excellent investigator. But Lucy had just laughed, while shaking her head. She had no desire to join the police force. She was perfectly happy working as an assistant to one of the area’s most renowned lawyers. That was enough excitement for her.
Trishia smiled. Besides, they really wanted to start a family.
With a slightly nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach, Trishia thought about the upcoming appointment with Lucy’s gynecologist. Jessica Winston had assured the couple that Lucy was in good health and there was no physical reason why she had two miscarriages.
Sometimes, things like that just happened, but it still hurt, Trishia knew.
With a small smile, she remembered the first time Lucy had found out she was pregnant. She had been glowing with happiness and although they had wanted to keep it quiet for a little while longer, Jody only had needed to take one look at her sister and their secret had been revealed.
They had all been so happy and supportive. Trishia grinned when she remembered how Fiona had promised to knit baby socks if Lucy happened to be carrying twins. And even though she only had to look at Sam and Jody to see how busy life could be with twins, she had almost wished for it, just to see Fiona knit.
Trishia cast a look at her watch and nodded. She would call in a team with dogs, to search the area thoroughly and then she would go home, pick up Lucy, and go to Murrook Farm. She needed to talk with Sam.
“Hey,” Fiona greeted Robin when she entered Sam’s office. She put the envelope with the picture on Sam’s desk and sank down in one of the big chairs. “Enjoying the view?”
Robin, who had been studying some of the photos that adorned the walls, turned her head and cast Fiona a look of wonder.
“Did you take all those?”
“Most of them,” Fiona shrugged. “Except for the ones on that wall. Sam and Jody made them on their honeymoon, when they were in The Netherlands.”
“They’ re excellent,” Robin admired.
“Well, yeah, they’ re not bad photographers,” Fiona shrugged with a small smile.
“Yes, those are not bad either, but I was talking about your work. You’ re really good. Now I understand why Sam gave you that assignment.”
“Yes, well, it was not because she married my sister, if that’s what you think,” Fiona answered, immediately regretting her words. Even though it was an old sore, because in the past people had made those kind of assumptions, that did not mean Robin shared their opinion.
Robin was about to give a quick retort, when, from the corner of her eye, she noticed the look of guilt and regret that crossed Fiona’s face. Taking a deep breath, she pushed away the anger that rose too quickly and easily these days. There was no point in arguing. And if she had read Fiona right in the short time she had known her, humor would often be a good approach.
“Remind me not to give you too many compliments,” she remarked dryly. “I’m afraid my poor head can only stand to be bitten off every now and then.”
Fiona softly chuckled and cast Robin an appreciative look.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I was way out of line. I really shouldn’t have said that, Robin. That was uncalled for, very shortsighted and opinionated.”
“Enough with the self-torture, Fiona,” Robin answered with a smile. “It’s alright, apology accepted. I’m sure it’s a sensitive subject. I take it you’ve been accused of using your sister-in- law to get assignments.”
“You’ve no idea,” Fiona sighed, resting her head against the back of the chair and closing her eyes. Her head hurt, but she would rather suffer than admit something like a headache.
“And you know,” she continued softly. “Sam asked about five different photographers to turn in a portfolio for this assignment. She selected a few shots from every one of them and showed them to some employees. Without knowing any names, they picked out the one they thought would be the best for this job. That happened to be me.”
“Sounds like a fair deal,” Robin agreed, studying Fiona’s face. Again she was struck by the photographer’s youthful features. It was hard to believe Fiona was twenty-one years old.
“It was a fair deal,” Fiona sighed. “Even my competition confirmed that. Sam would never favor family over someone else, just because they’re family.”
“Speaking of Sam, where is she?” Robin asked, casting a look at the clock on the wall.
“Smooching with Jody, in the kitchen,” Fiona immediately answered, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Which it was. The whole family was used to running into Sam and Jody while the couple shared a tender moment. They felt comfortable enough around their family members to share the occasional kiss or two.
“They were pretty…involved with each other,” Fiona chuckled. “I don’t think they even noticed me when I walked past them.”
“That’s what you think,” a cheerful voice sounded from the doorway and when Fiona opened her eyes she looked straight into a pair of laughing blue eyes.
“Mmm, that’s interesting. Aren’t you supposed to be lost to the world when the woman who loves you kisses you senseless?” Fiona teased.
“That was before we had the twins,” Sam quipped, winking at Robin. “We both have developed a few new senses. It’s pretty handy, you should try it,” she added.
“That would require actually finding somebody I’d like to kiss,” Fiona grinned. “And, let’s not forget, that same person would have to enjoy kissing me as well. Somehow I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
“I know a few people who’d be very interested,” Sam teased.
“I know you do,” Fiona responded, enjoying the verbal sparring sessions wit her sister-in-law. “And I know them as well. That’s exactly why I’m not interested.”
Sam laughed and took her favorite seat on the edge of the huge desk. Her eyes twinkled when she looked at Fiona. It always was great fun to tease Fiona, because no matter what Sam would say, Fiona usually had an answer ready. She admired the young woman’s quick wit and sharp mind.
“I still have those tickets,” Sam grinned. “I’m waiting to sell them.”
“You might as well just throw them away,” Fiona snorted. “It’s not like you’ll ever get to use them.”
Robin, who enjoyed the bantering between the two women, sported a small frown when she looked up at Sam. The tall blonde caught the gaze and smiled at her.
“Fiona has always been very good at teasing family members and friends about their love lives. Years ago, Yarra said that on the day Fiona falls in love, she’d have a front row seat. I promised to sell tickets,” Sam explained.
“Now you know why I can’t give into those primal urges,” Fiona told Robin with an air of mock arrogance. “Face it, my life would be over.”
“Sounds to me like pay backs,” Robin smiled.
“Exactly,” Fiona nodded while the amusement lit up her eyes. “If, and I emphasize the word if , I ever fall in love, I could never subject the object of my affection to such a treatment. Therefore, I’ll pass.”
“That’s very big of you,” Robin nodded, while Sam threw back her head and laughed out loud.
“I live to serve,” Fiona answered with a smug smile.
“Oh, please,” Sam laughed. “That’s enough, Fiona McDonnell. You might have it all worked out, but I’m sure that one day your theory will just bite you in the butt. After all, you’re only human.”
“So they say,” Fiona chuckled, enjoying the fact that she and Sam had been able to make Robin laugh. It chased away that haunted look in those hazel eyes and made her look a lot more relaxed and happy. Maybe having Robin for a guest the next few days wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Fiona leaned back in her chair and, from the corner of her eye, she cast a look at the manager, noticing she had never seen Robin so relaxed before. She smiled and briefly closed her eyes, unaware of a pair of intelligent blue eyes that traveled between her and Robin.
In spite of her headache, Fiona felt content. Life was good.
It was quiet, only the natural sounds of the subtropical rainforest could be heard over the steady sound of streaming water. In the small valley between two hills crystal clear, cold water came tumbling down a waterfall to land in a creek that was littered with rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes. It rushed downstream in a hurry to reach the river and, ultimately, the vast expense of the Pacific Ocean.
Close to the waterfall, a tall, dark-clad figure groaned while pulling a log from the water and hauling it up the bank of the creek. Without pausing the log was pulled up higher, sliding through the dense vegetation, until it reached a small opening in the side of the hill. It was just large enough to let a grown man crawl through and the dark figure had to wiggle his way in, feeling the volcanic rock scrape his shoulders and arms.
Inside, he was able to straighten up and with a contented smile he looked around the small area. His eyes took in every detail and finally he slowly nodded. This would do. Nobody would ever find this place.
It was time for the next step.
Trishia cast a look aside and smiled at the woman who was sitting next to her in the car. Lucy looked as beautiful as ever and Trishia felt an intense wave of warmth travel all the way through her body, when a pair of dark-green eyes looked up at her and smiled.
“You look beautiful today,” Trishia complimented her partner, reaching out her left hand to squeeze Lucy’s knee gently . “That color really becomes you.”
“You’d say that if I was wearing a potato sack,” Lucy smiled. “But I appreciate it. Thank you.”
“How are you feeling today?”
“Considering my night was violently cut short by my baby-sister’s adventures, pretty good,” Lucy answered, making Trishia laugh. “I do feel like I could sleep for another sixteen hours, though.” She let out a shaky breath and grasped Trishia’s hand in a tight grip. “We’ll know more in two days,” she added, not aware of the wistful tone in her voice.
“Yes, we will,” Trishia smiled.
“They say third time is a charm,” Lucy mused. “I’m almost afraid to hope, but you know, honey, deep down inside(,) I have this…feeling that’s unlike anything I’ve felt before. The first time I was over the moon, we both were and the miscarriage came as a real shock. The second time(,) though, I had this sense of foreboding, like I knew I’d lose the baby.” Lucy swallowed hard and lifted Trishia’s hand to kiss the knuckles. “It’s different now,” she whispered.
Trishia’s heart seemed to miss a beat when she let Lucy’s words sink in. If her partner was right then, maybe, this time things would turn out right. Maybe, by the end of the year, they would be able to hold their child.
Trishia breathed in deeply to calm her racing heart and cast a look aside when she heard Lucy chuckle.
“That’s exactly how I feel,” Lucy admitted with a gentle smile. “A mixture of fear and joy that seems to be too much for my poor heart to bear.”
Trishia laughed and steered the car into a rest area at the side of the road.
“What are you doing?” Lucy asked with surprise.
“This,” Trishia answered, turning around in her seat and wrapping her arms around her partner. “I felt like I needed to hold you, or bust at the seams.”
“Then, by all means, hold me,” Lucy whispered with a smile, pulling Trishia’s head down for a kiss.
Long moments later, they stared at each other with teary eyes, both touched deeply by their shared joy and fear.
Lucy cupped Trishia’s cheek and tenderly kissed the moist lips that were so close.
“This time it will be alright,” she promised with confidence.
“I so want to believe that,” Trishia whispered.
“Then(,) believe,” Lucy smiled. “I do.”
Trishia pressed Lucy’s head against her shoulder and buried her nose in the thick, dark hair. Breathing in the scent that was so like her partner, she closed her eyes and allowed her senses to overtake her. Her heart that had been beating wildly, finally slowed down and Trishia was filled with the calm, peaceful feeling, only her partner’s close presence could provide.
When she finally pulled back, her eyes were filled with wonder. She wasn’t aware of the single tear that slid down her cheek, until Lucy wiped it away.
“I believe,” she spoke softly.
“I know, I can see it in your eyes,” Lucy smiled. “I love you, Trishia Waters.”
“And I love you, Lucy McDonnell.”
“You’d better,” Lucy teased. “I really want to raise this child with you.”
“Do you have any doubts?” Trishia asked and her eyes were serious.
“Never,” Lucy shook her head. “You’ re mine. As I am yours.”
“That’s absolutely right,” Trishia nodded with a smile. Then she sighed. “Can I take you away to an undisclosed, tropical destination with good healthcare facilities?”
“Sure, honey,” Lucy chuckled. “When would you want to leave?”
Trishia laughed and kissed Lucy’s forehead, before releasing her.
“If only I could. But I’m afraid I’ve a mystery to solve. Your family managed to attract yet another nutcase. What’s up with that? Is it hereditary?”
“Probably,” Lucy answered cheerfully, while Trishia steered the car back onto the road. “Scary thought, huh?” she teased. “But it’s too late now, sweetie,” she added, patting her belly. “Maybe your sensible influence will have a positive effect.”
“Let’s hope so,” Trishia mumbled, making Lucy laugh.
A few hours later, after having enjoyed a nice lunch, Sam invited Trishia and Robin into her office to talk about the recent events. While they disappeared into the house, Fiona pulled a face and moodily played with one of Timothy’s toys. She knew Sam had no reason to invite her into what appeared to be an executive meeting, but still, after the events of the previous night, she could not help feeling left out.
With a sigh, she stood up slowly to start clearing the table. Jody, Lucy and Alice were tucking in the toddlers for their afternoon nap, while Yarra and Joshua were in front of the house, playing with a wildly enthusiastic Kurt.
Carrying a stack of plates, Fiona walked into the kitchen, opened the dishwasher and started the process of loading the machine. Involuntarily, her thoughts traveled back to the previous afternoon and night and, for the umpteenth time, she wondered who could be the mysterious person in the picture and why that same person would try to hurt anybody. What was going on?
Fiona sucked in her bottom lip, much like Jody did when she was deep in thought, and she wished she was a fly on the wall of Sam’s office. She really wanted to hear what Trishia had to say. Had the police discovered anything? Were there any tracks or leads? Had Trishia any idea who the person in the picture might be?
“They’ re probably studying the photo right now,” Fiona mumbled to herself. “And it’s my photo.”
“What’s with the long face, Fi?” Alice voice sounded unexpectedly, almost making Fiona jump.
“Oh, nothing,” Fiona shrugged. “Just thinking, that’s all. Aren’t you supposed to read your fans a story?”
Alice smiled and leaned against the kitchen counter, while her clear blue eyes took in her friend’s face.
“I had a feeling Lucy and Jody needed to talk. In private,” she explained.
“Really?” Fiona asked and her face lit up. “Do you think that…?”
“I don’t know, Fi. It’s just…a feeling,” Alice explained.
“Well, we all know you and your feelings,” Fiona spoke, closing the door of the dishwasher and leaning her hip against it while she looked at her friend. “I’ve come to value your…feelings about certain things.”
“You make me sound like an oracle,” Alice softly snorted, but there was a smile in her eyes.
“You mean, you aren’t?” Fiona teased and Alice laughed.
“That’s my Fiona,” she said, nudging her friend with her shoulder. “So, what’s up with you?”
“What do you mean?” Fiona responded with a small frown.
“The long face. You didn’t think I’d give up that easily, did you? When I walked into the kitchen, you were positively looking like you were upset about something. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Fiona mumbled, avoiding Alice’s eyes. “Do you want me to make some tea?”
“No, I don’t,” Alice answered, stepping closer to Fiona and grabbing her hand before she could escape. “I want to know what’s on your mind, Fiona. Because there is something going on, no matter how much you want to deny it.”
“I don’t know, Alice,” Fiona sighed, finally looking up at her friend with a sad expression in her eyes. “I’m just being childish. Maybe I’m PMS’ing,” she added with a wry grin.
“I don’t think so,” Alice chuckled. “I know you’re one of those few women who are hardly bothered by that, so stop making excuses.”
“You know me too well,” Fiona sighed, rolling her eyes. “But alright. I admire your persistence and it needs a reward.” Fiona stuffed her hands in her pockets and stared at the kitchen floor, trying to make sense of herself.
“When you, Lucy and Jody left to tuck in the tornados, Sam, Trish and Robin went to the office and Yarra and Josh decided to give Kurt a run for his money. I think I…um…I don’t know, I guess…”
“You felt like you were standing on the sidelines looking in,” Alice gently finished the sentence.
“Something like that,” Fiona shrugged. “It’s stupid, I know, and I’ve no idea where it came from. I guess it annoyed me. The feeling, I mean, not that everyone jumped up and left.”
“Maybe you’ re tired,” Alice suggested, deliberately providing a way out for her friend. “How is your head?”
“Still there,” Fiona smiled. “And yes, I’m tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
And I’m tired deep, down inside…But it’s not like I can explain that. I don’t even understand it myself…
“Maybe you should lie down for a while and take a nap,” Alice suggested, chuckling when Fiona shot her a look of indignation.
“Are you kidding? And miss all the excitement? No, thanks.” Fiona breathed in deeply, somehow feeling a little better already. “So, you really think I’ll become an aunt again soon?”
“Oh, Fi, if only,” Alice sighed. “Lucy and Trish have been through so much lately, they deserve some happiness.”
“Yes, they do,” Fiona agreed, while her thoughts returned to her bantering with Sam. Robin had seemed so relaxed, the difference with the almost haunted, serious expression had been amazing. Surely, Robin and Joshua deserved some happiness as well.
A hand suddenly grabbed her elbow and, startled, Fiona looked up into Alice’s twinkling eyes.
“Still there?” she asked with a smile that created dimples in her cheeks.
“Oh, yes, sorry,” Fiona mumbled. “I’m losing my mind.”
“That’s old news,” Alice dead panned. “But we love you anyway,” she added with a grin.
“Oh, wow, that’s a relief,” Fiona laughed, making a conscious effort to push away all the images and emotions that assaulted her senses. She would deal with them later. Maybe.
Alice extended her hand in invitation and felt a wave of relief when it was immediately grabbed by Fiona, who looked at her with a mischievous expression.
“Want to cause some trouble?” the blonde asked with sparkling eyes.
“Always,” Fiona vowed.
“Good,” Alice grinned. “I’m in the mood for a water fight. Do you want to be my partner in crime?”
“Are you kidding?” Fiona laughed. “You have the best aim in the family. I’m all yours, slugger.”
Trishia rubbed her tired eyes and continued to stare at the photograph in front of her. The obscured face increased the uneasy feeling she had, but it was interesting to see that the outline of the broad shoulders and the estimated height of the person in the picture, corresponded with the impression she had after studying the partial footprint.
It was great to be right. But it would be better if she would be able to put a name to the masked face.
“To answer your first question, Sam, no, I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I ever heard about a case like this. It’s all new to me,” she finally spoke.
“Somehow I was afraid of that,” Sam sighed, leaning back in her chair and studying the photo on her desk. Jody and the twins stared at her from within the framed picture. Even through the still image, Jody’s eyes seemed to reach deep into her soul, strengthening Sam’s resolve and determination.
“We need to find out more, Trish,” she spoke.
“I know, Sam, believe me, I know,” Trishia sighed, pushing the picture away with a feeling of disgust. “We’ re working on it. As we speak, as a matter of fact. Maybe the dogs will be able to find something we overlooked.”
“I hope so,” Robin spoke up. “My imagination is starting to run rampant.”
“I know what you mean,” Sam nodded. “It’s hard not to come up with crazy ideas.”
“The idea that you, or Fiona could have been hit by that bullet drives me insane,” Trishia groaned, casting a look at Robin. “Who could have known?”
“Don’t blame yourself, Trishia,” Robin answered. “Nobody knew. Maybe I should have called you, Sam, after Fiona told me she had seen somebody. I guess I didn’t take her serious enough. She acted so casually.”
“That’s our Fi,” Trishia smiled. “Sometimes it’s hard to find out what goes on in her mind.”
“She was joking about the Yowie,” Robin mumbled. “But I should have gone down that hill and…”
“Absolutely not,” Trishia interrupted in a stern voice. “You know the rules.”
“I do,” Robin sighed. “But still, I should have known better.”
“Nobody expected this, Robin,” Sam said. “We should all quit blaming ourselves and start working on a plan, since things are starting to develop a lot faster than we had anticipated.”
Sam’s words were followed by a silence. All three women were lost in thought and the only thing that could be heard were the sounds of laughter, the splashing of water and running footsteps.
“What the heck are they doing?” Trishia asked, suddenly jumping up and walking towards the window.
“Water fight,” Sam smiled, knowingly. “For some strange reason, Alice loves water fights. I’m sure she’s the one who started this. Usually, she gets a balloon or plastic bag and fills it up with ice-cold water.” Sam laughed. “She never misses and believe me, I know.”
Casting a look at Robin, she chuckled and pointed at the window.
“I bet you’ll be able to see Alice and Fiona teamed up against Yarra and poor Josh.”
Robin grinned and jumped up to where Trishia was standing. The window provided a great view and, with a laugh, Robin watched her brother being chased by both Fiona and Alice, while Yarra was lying in the grass, soaking wet.
“I’m afraid they will wear him down,” Trishia grinned, admiring Joshua’s dodging skills. “And Yarra is not much help either.”
“Yarra’s been through this before,” Sam’s amused voice sounded behind them. “She knows resistance is futile. Those two are relentless.”
Trishia, who knew Sam’s words were true, smiled and her eyes followed the frantic movements of Joshua, who was still trying to get away from Alice and Fiona. Involuntarily, her thoughts traveled back to that one moment, several years ago, when she had done some chasing of her own, in an effort to capture the men who were trying to kidnap Sam. In the end, she had to shoot one of them in a situation where she hadn’t been left any choice. It had destroyed her innocence. In her whole career as a police officer, she had only shot somebody twice. Both times, it had saved Sam’s life.
Suddenly Trishia sucked in a breath and her body went rigid. Something that had been tickling the back of her mind suddenly came into full view and she mentally slapped herself for not having seen it before.
When she turned around to face Sam, the tall blonde noticed the fire in her friend’s eyes and she tilted her head slightly in an unconscious, listening posture.
“Shoot,” she encouraged.
Trishia nodded and her eyes darted to Robin, who was looking at her with a puzzled expression.
“Robin, does the name Hayes ring a bell?”
Robin frowned and tried to remember if it did. Of course the name itself was not unusual, but had she ever heard it in combination with something else? Something important that could help them in the situation they were involved in at the moment.
“Hayes, Hayes,” she slowly repeated, as if she was carefully tasting the word. “I’m not sure, Trish, I don’t think that…”
All of a sudden, Robin’s eyes shot wide open and all blood drained from her face. Quickly grabbing the closest chair, she was able to steady herself while, with lightning speed, a memory came rushing through her conscious mind.
I’ve told you once and I”ll tell you again, Joe, to get out of my sight and out of our lives. Leave your sister alone and take your dubious business with you. You and that friend of yours, what’s his name, Hayes? You’ ve caused enough trouble already. Get out of here before I call the police…
“My dad,” she spoke in a hoarse voice. “I remember my dad using that name when he and Joe had a fight. It was only a few weeks before their car spun out of control and they…” Robin swallowed hard. “They crashed,” she finished, barely audible.
Trishia, who had grabbed Robin’s arm to prevent her from falling, suddenly let go as if she had burnt her hands. The expression on her face was one of complete astonishment when she looked at Sam, who now was very pale as well.
“Hayes? Steven Hayes?” Sam echoed, after carefully clearing her throat.
“Yes, or Little Steven ,as they called him,” Robin answered, rubbing her forehead. “He was my uncle’s friend. I’ve only seen him once, from a distance, but I remember he was pretty…” Robin’s eyes went wide. “…tall,” she ended in a whisper.
“Oh, my goodness,” Sam whispered, turning around and letting herself fall into a chair. “Trish, I don’t think that…How is it possible…”
“He’s dead, Sam,” Trishia answered in a firm voice. “He’s dead, you were there.”
“I know,” Sam answered hoarsely. “How could I forget? But Trish, what if he has…could he have…?”
Trishia nodded and lead Robin to a chair, gesturing the young woman to take a seat. She took a much needed moment to collect her thoughts and sank down on Sam’s favorite seat, at the edge of the desk. Things were starting to spin out of control and Trishia knew it was essential to keep a tight grip on the situation.
But how had she missed that clue? It was so obvious. Why hadn’t she thought about Little Steven Hayes before? True, the man was dead, but maybe there could be a link between the deceased criminal and the tall, mysterious stranger in the forest.
In her mind Trishia had already started to make a list of priorities. She needed information and she needed it fast. With her police mask firmly in place to hide the turmoil inside, Trishia turned to Robin and sent her a calm, determined look.
“Robin, we need to talk.”
Just after Trishia had taken a deep breath and was about to speak, her cell phone rang. With an apologetic look at Robin and Sam and a softly muttered curse, she pulled the device out of her pocket and brought it to her ear.
“Paul! I thought you’d be home by now,” she greeted the caller. While the other person talked, Trishia frowned. “What? Really? No, no, I don’t want you to do that. I’ll be there in about thirty minutes. See you then. Thanks, Paul, I appreciate it.”
Stuffing the phone back in her pocket, Trishia turned to Sam and sent her a look that was a mixture of apprehension and excitement.
“The dog team has found some tracks that lead all the way around the mountain to the valley on the other side. Now we know why we didn’t find any tire tracks. This bloke must have had some infrared goggles. There’s no way a person can take that route when it’s pitch dark.”
“Are you going over there?” Sam asked, rising up from her chair.
“Yes, I will,” Trishia nodded.
“Then I’ll come with you,” Sam decided, raising a hand to stop Trishia from objecting. “I’m responsible for that place, Trish. I need to know what’s going on.”
“I’ll come too,” Robin spoke, jumping up from her chair. Her eyes traveled between Sam and Trishia and she shrugged her shoulders when she noticed their questioning looks.
“I’m fine, honest. Besides, I’m supposed to be the manager there. I’ve responsibilities as well.”
“Well, I guess if Sam tags along, I can’t keep you away either,” Trishia sighed. “I don’t have to remind the two of you not to wander off on your own, do I?”
“Of course not,” Sam responded. “We just want to look around, Trish.”
“Alright, let’s tell the girls, so we can leave.”
Lucy and Jody were still in the children’s bedroom. They had been reading the twins a story and even though the toddlers had dozed off and were sound asleep, the two sisters were still sitting on the windowsill, talking softly.
When Sam peeked around the corner, she could not help but smile. Although she could not hear any of the whispered words, the joyful, excited glow on both Jody’s and Lucy’s faces were testament to something she had been hoping and praying for. She was convinced her partner would tell her all about it later.
As soon as Jody caught Sam’s gaze, she smiled brightly and grabbed her sister’s hand, pulling her along with her. They tip-toed their way out of the twins’ room and carefully closed the door behind them.
“What’s up, honey?” Jody whispered, wrapping her arm around Sam’s waist, while they headed for the kitchen.
“Trish just received a phone call. They found some tracks she wants to check out herself. Robin and I will go with her.”
Jody halted in her steps and looked up at the tall blonde with a worried expression.
“Honey, is it…?
“Yes, it’s safe,” Sam smiled, kissing Jody’s forehead. “Trishia is with us and besides, the place is crawling with police. Whoever was up there last night, won’t be coming back today.”
“I’ve a deja-vu,” Jody mumbled. “I don’t like this, Sam. At all. Please be careful.”
“I promise,” Sam spoke softly. “We’ll be back before you know it. But just to be on the safe side, I have activated the security system. With that new gadget Peter’s brother installed, you’ll hear a warning as soon as anything bigger than a dog hits the dirt road.”
“Alright, sweetie,” Jody sighed. “I wish I could come with you.”
“I know,” Sam smiled, wrapping her arms around her smaller partner to pull her in for a hug. “I’ll call you when we get there.”
“I count on that,” Jody answered, kissing Sam’s shoulder. “Why do I have the feeling we’re being plunged into yet another adventure?”
“Probably because we are,” Sam replied dryly, before releasing her partner. “By the way…” Sam looked around and even though everybody else was outside she lowered her voice to a whisper. Her eyes were shining with excitement. “Is Lucy…?”
Jody chuckled and cast a glance outside, where her sister was leaning against Trishia, who had her arm wrapped around her waist. They were talking to Fiona, who seemed to be involved in an argument with the tall police officer.
“Nothing is official yet, so you can’t say a word to anyone else. Lucy’s convinced she’s pregnant and she says that this time it’s different. She really believes everything will be alright this time. But because of the first two miscarriages, they want to keep it quiet as long as possible.”
“Which I can understand,” Sam smiled brightly. “Wow, good news,” she beamed. “It would be great if the twins would have a cousin to play with.”
“Bully around, you mean,” Jody grinned.
“In Taryn’s case, yes,” Sam smiled. “She’s a little spitfire.”
“I wonder where she got that trait from,” Jody mused, but her eyes were twinkling.
Sam pretended to think deeply, which made Jody laugh softly. She knew what was coming next.
“See those two dark-haired beauties outside? One with and one without freckles? Are they related to you?” Sam asked with almost childish innocence.
“So they say,” Jody chuckled. “But maybe I was adopted.”
Now it was Sam’s turn to laugh. Even though not all of the McDonnell children looked alike as much as Fiona and Lucy did, it was still clear they were all related.
“No, I’m sorry, honey,” Sam spoke, shaking her head. “You’re a McDonnell because, if you were adopted, than Michael must have been as well. You and he really look alike.”
“I know,” Jody smiled. “He’s a handsome fellow.”
“I’m so glad you’ re not burdened with a false sense of modesty,” Sam teased, knowing Jody had been joking. In her eyes, her partner was the most beautiful woman in the world. “But then, I keep telling you how beautiful you are.”
“And I appreciate that,” Jody nodded, lovingly patting Sam’s cheek. “Although we both know that you’re biased.”
“Who? Me? Nah!”
Jody laughed and put a hand behind Sam’s neck to pull her down for a quick kiss.
“You’d better get out there, before Trish and Fiona get into a serious disagreement. Judging by the look on her face, my sister is not happy.”
“I bet she wants to come along as well,” Sam sighed.
“Let her bring her camera,” Jody suggested calmly, smiling at the look of surprise on Sam’s face.
“You know, my love, that is a brilliant idea,” she remarked. “You think that will keep her out of trouble?”
“It’s worth a shot,” Jody chuckled, while she opened the door to the veranda. “Although, with Fiona, you’ll never know.”
As soon as they stepped onto the veranda, Jody and Sam could hear the indignant tone in Fiona’s voice when she pointed at Sam.
“Sam’s a civilian,” Fiona calmly remarked. “So is Robin. What does that make me? An alien?”
“Funny you’d ask,” Lucy chuckled, but a gentle squeeze of Trishia’s hand on her shoulder silenced her. The police officer had no time to witness one of Lucy’s and Fiona’s famous verbal sparring sessions.
“Trish,” Sam’s voice interrupted the discussion and when the police woman turned around, Jody noticed the exasperation in her sister-in-law’s eyes.
“I don’t want to undermine your authority, but Jody suggested we might need a photographer,” Sam explained gently.
“Yes, you do,” Fiona nodded enthusiastically. “I promise I won’t be in your way. I’ll be good. Honest. I’m always good.”
That last remark made everybody laugh and Yarra, still dripping wet, gave her friend a friendly slap on the back.
“Fiona, honey, don’t lay it on too thick, we might believe you.”
Fiona just grinned and sent Jody a grateful look. Jody nodded and answered the photographer’s gaze with a questioning one of her own.
“I promised you, Pea,” Fiona answered the unspoken question.
“Good,” Jody smiled. “I trust you, Red.”
“Alright, let’s go,” Sam urged. Although she was curious about the tracks the dog team had discovered, she wanted to be back home as soon as possible. Preferably, before the twins awoke. One of her favorite things was, together with Jody, to lift the warm, sleepy bodies of her children out of their bed and quietly snuggle until they were completely awake. She cherished those peaceful moments together with her partner.
“I’ll run down and grab my camera,” Fiona called out, turning around and running down the hill. Kurt, who thought that was a great idea, followed her with a happy bark and within minutes the two of them disappeared around the corner of the little house.
“There was no need to run, we could have stopped there on the way down,” Trishia mumbled, shaking her head over Fiona’s enthusiasm.
“You know my sister,” Lucy responded with a laugh. “She likes doing things the hard way.”
“I know,” Trishia sighed, making a mental note to keep Fiona within sight all the time. “I guess we’ll be back in a couple of hours,” she promised, turning to Lucy and sending her a warm smile.
“I’ll be here,” Lucy answered, giving her partner a quick hug. “Be careful.”
“Always,” Trishia promised.
Fiona looked around and wrinkled her nose in thought. She had taken pictures of the area where Trishia thought the masked intruder had parked his car. It was scary to realize that some stranger would go through a lot of trouble and hard work, to sneak up the mountain in the middle of the night. And Fiona was convinced the encounter had not been a coincidence. There was something going on and her instincts told her Trishia and Sam knew more about it than they were willing to share.
Kicking the forest floor with the toe of her once white sneakers Fiona’s thoughts went back to that moment, years ago, when they had been trapped in Sarah’s and Megan’s house. Little Steven Hayes had tried to burn them alive, but thanks to Sam and Little Steven’s young helper, Fred, whose conscience would not allow him to turn around and walk away, they had been able to escape a horrible death.
Although it had been several years ago, Fiona still felt a little nauseous when she realized what could have happened. She had tried to figure out what motivated a person to do something like that to another human being, but she had still not found the answer to that question. The only thing that would make sense was insanity. And that was what frightened her the most, although she would never admit that to anyone.
Fiona had lived through that ordeal unscathed, but she knew she was carrying the scars anyway. Like Jody, Lucy, and Sam.
The prospect of another person who would be able and willing to hurt her family and friends was upsetting. Fiona knew that Trishia and Sam would do anything in their power to keep them all safe, but she was determined not to sit around and wait until the mystery was solved. If needed, she would take action.
With a sigh, Fiona looked up when she heard the muffled sound of approaching footsteps. When she noticed Robin Adams making her way over to where she was standing, Fiona became aware of an emotion that made her frown. It was a mixture of fear and excitement and she wondered what could have caused that sensation.
Inwardly she chuckled.
Sam must be rubbing off on me. I’m becoming a protective mother hen as well. Oooh, scary!
“Enjoying the scenery?” Robin smiled.
“Sort of,” Fiona drawled lazily. “The view would be a lot better without those people milling about.”
“I know,” Robin nodded, casting a look at a small group of police officers who were talking to each other on the side of the road.
“I’m being good,” Fiona sighed, casting a longing glance on the steep, overgrown
hillside behind her. “What I really would like to do, is walk up there and check out that area where he was when I took that picture. I’m sure I saw him dropping something.”
“Did you tell Trishia that?” Robin asked, immediately knowing the answer when she saw the guilty look on Fiona’s face.
“Why didn’t you?” she sighed.
“To be honest, I forgot. I really did,” Fiona answered. “I guess I should tell her, huh? But it’s not like I can pinpoint the exact location. I need to be up there,” she pointed to the area behind her,” to be sure.”
“Let’s go tell her,” Robin suggested. “She might want to hike up there, or better yet, we could drive up the usual track and walk from the resort. That would only be about ten to fifteen minutes. It would be a lot faster.”
“And less sweatier,” Fiona agreed, wiping some moisture from her forehead. “Alright, let’s go and make a confession. I hope she won’t bite my head off,” she added with a mumble.
“Hey, you weren’t exactly in the best shape last night, nor this morning,” Robin remarked.
Fiona glanced at the woman next to her and sent her a small, appreciative smile.
“Thanks for defending my honor, but the truth is, I never forget anything. There’s a serious risk I’ll never hear the end of this.”
“You’re human,” Robin answered simply.
“Really?” Fiona chuckled. “My dear sister was about to call me an alien before. Did you hear that?”
“I did,” Robin laughed, remembering the conversation between the siblings. “Why did Jody call you ‘Red’? Is that a nickname?”
“Yes, it is,” Fiona nodded. “In the good old McDonnell tradition, everyone in our family has one.”
“Really?” Robin asked. “So, why ‘Red’?” she gently prodded.
“I see I can’t win this one,” Fiona sighed, rolling her eyes. “Alright, I’ll tell you. When I was a kid, my hair was dark-red. Not the reddish blonde of Jody’s hair, but really dark-red. That’s where the name comes from. And when the color changed, the name stuck.”
“Interesting,” Robin mused, glancing at the thick, dark hair that fell loosely on the photographer’s shoulders.
Fiona caught the gaze and softly chuckled. She knew it seemed hard to believe, since her hair was so dark, but she had been telling the truth.
“What are the other nicknames?” Robin asked curiously.
“Well, let me start from the top: Jody is Pea, Lucy is Freckles,” Fiona grinned when she heard Robin chuckle. “Matthew, my eldest brother, is Romeo, Gerald is Bird and Michael is Specs.”
“Specs?” Robin echoed.
“He had to wear glasses when he was little,” Fiona explained, suppressing a smile when she noticed the indignant look on Robin’s face.
“He was the one who came up with it,” she explained quickly. “I guess he thought it was pretty cool, but apparently he didn’t think ahead. I don’t think he’d expected it to be permanent. Little did he know,” she laughed.
“I still think it’s a little…sad that he’s called that,” Robin spoke.
“You and Jody,” Fiona chuckled. “She never calls him Specs. She reckons it’s mean. While nobody ever questioned calling me ‘Red’.”
“Somehow I think you can take it,” Robin smiled, seeing the sparkle in Fiona’s eyes.
“No compassion from you, huh?” Fiona pouted. “I see where I stand.”
Actually, I don’t. Not at all.
Inwardly, Fiona sighed and she sent Robin a small smile when the other woman laughed.
At least she had been able to make Robin laugh again. That was so much better than rubbing her the wrong way.
Unconsciously, Fiona straightened her back, all of a sudden feeling a lot better.
Trishia was very interested in Fiona’s information and after some quick orders, they jumped in the car to drive to the other side of the mountain, where the dirt-road led to the office building of the new resort.
The drive was quiet and when Trishia had parked the car, she didn’t waste any time. They had all jumped out and Fiona, carrying her camera bag on her shoulder, had led the way.
It did not take the photographer long to find the exact spot where she had located the dark- clad intruder.
“There,” she pointed to a spot down the steep hill. “Do you see that Booyong tree with that strange, deformed bush on the left? It looks like a spider with twelve and a half legs.”
Behind her, Fiona could hear Sam and Robin chuckle and she smiled.
“Do you see it?” she repeated, looking at Trishia who was intently staring at the designated spot.
“Yes, I believe I do,” was the answer.
“Just before he disappeared behind that tree, I saw him drop something,” Fiona explained. “On the right side of it.”
Trishia slowly nodded and suppressed a sigh. She wasn’t looking forward to descending down the steep hill. The vegetation was thick and looked almost impossible to penetrate. She knew that, before she would return to the car, her bare arms would be covered in scratches.
“Are we going down there?” Robin asked, already stepping off the path to start the difficult hike down the hillside.
“Actually, I wanted to suggest that the three of you stay here, while I go down,” Trishia replied.
“Bad idea,” Fiona remarked, shaking her head.”You need a photographer.”
Trishia cast a look at Sam, who shrugged her shoulders and nodded.
“Let’s all go down then,” Trishia sighed. “Because I’m sure I can’t prevent Sam from coming along and I don’t want Robin to stay here all by herself.”
“It’s not a bad idea, Trish. We might need each other’s help every now and then.”
Sam knew her right leg would be very painful at the end of the day, but she was determined to accompany Trishia and Fiona in their little expedition. Even though the Australian bush was considered the safest one in the world, there could still be some unexpected, nasty surprises.
“Alright, let’s spread out a little. If anyone slips and falls, I don’t want them to cause a chain reaction.”
“That would be nasty,” Fiona agreed, stepping off the path, into the thick forest, carefully placing her feet on the dark soil.
The canopy of trees provided shelter against the sun, but the air was thick and the humidity high and within minutes the women could feel drops of perspiration roll down their foreheads and backs.
Cautiously, they descended the steep hill. Careful not to slip and fall, or get tangled up in the thick foliage. They had not been prepared to hike through the bushes and the sometimes thorny branches unmercifully scratched their skins..
“Don’t you just love a relaxed hike on a Saturday afternoon?” Fiona cheerfully called out, wincing when the moment of inattention caused her leg to get tangled up in some lantana.
“Serves you right, McDonnell,” she mumbled to herself, looking at the bleeding scratches on her right leg. “Stop trying to be funny and pay attention to where you put your grubby feet, or you’ll end up being a poster child for band-aid.”
“Are you alright, Fi?” Sam’s concerned voice came from the left.
“Yes, just talking to the bushes.”
“Are they listening?” Trishia quipped.
“As a matter of fact, yes, I think they are. I might have found my match. Finally,” Fiona dead-panned, continuing her walk down the hill.
“Figures your match would be a prickly bush,” Sam teased.
“What can I say?” Fiona grinned. “Soul mates do come in all sorts, shapes and sizes.”
A glance aside showed her that Robin was steadily making her way down, a look of total concentration on her face. To Fiona, it was obvious the woman had experience in hiking through difficult terrain. Seemingly without difficulty, she dodged the low-hanging branches, while avoiding the thick, slippery tree roots the forest floor was covered with.
It was as if Robin could feel Fiona’s glance, because suddenly she looked up and when their eyes met she sent the photographer a small smile. That one moment of looking away from the ground in front of her, caused her foot to get caught behind a root and with a muffled expletive, Robin lost her balance and fell to the ground, hitting her shoulder against a tree with full force. The blow momentarily paralyzed her arm and even though she reached out to a nearby branch, she lacked the strength to grab hold of it to her to keep her from rolling down the hill.
Robin tried to pull up her knees and protect her head from bumping into a tree or a rock, but the fall had temporarily disoriented her and after a few seconds of rolling down the hill, her left side forcefully collided with a tree, bringing her to a full stop.
Lying face down, gasping for breath, Robin tried to push herself upright and she groaned in frustration and pain when her body refused to obey.
There were sounds of somebody sliding down the hill and plopping down next to her to the damp forest floor.
“Take it easy,” a concerned voice suddenly sounded close to her ear. “I’ll help you turn around. Easy, alright?”
Robin just groaned, not really registering the words, but responding to the voice.
A pair of strong hands carefully slid across her shoulders and waist and slowly turned her onto her back. That definitely made breathing a whole lot easier and Robin sent Fiona a grateful look.
“Why is it that when you and I are in the same forest, I always end up hurting myself?” she gasped.
“I’ve no idea, but I am sorry,” Fiona mumbled, scanning Robin for visible injuries.
“We should stop doing that,” Robin whispered with difficulty.
“I agree,” Fiona nodded, looking up when both Sam and Trishia knelt down next to her.
“Are you alright, Robin?” Sam asked with concern, noticing the bleeding gash just above the woman’s left eyebrow.
“I’ve felt better,” Robin winced, trying to probe her left side with her right arm. Immediately, a sharp pain shot through her body and she bit her lip to prevent herself from crying out.
“I’d better check to see if anything is broken,” Trishia said, mentally slapping herself for allowing the other three women to come with her. “Tell me if I hurt you, okay, Robin?”
“Don’t worry, I will,” the injured woman breathed.
Fiona, who was sitting on Robin’s left side, watched how Trishia carefully examined Robin’s arms and legs, unconsciously holding her breath when the police woman checked the range of motion on the right shoulder that had been slammed into a tree.
Robin trembled when Trishia touched her shoulder and her left hand grabbed Fiona’s arm in a tight grip, blindly searching for support. Pursing her lips, Fiona suppressed a groan of pain, knowing Robin’s fingers would leave a bruise.
“It doesn’t seem to be broken,” Trishia finally spoke softly. “But we need to go to a hospital anyway, to have it x-rayed.”
“That’s fine,” Robin sighed. “I’m sure I have a few cracked ribs though.”
“Let me feel,” Trishia responded, shifting position so she could carefully probe Robin’s ribs, which made the unfortunate woman leave another bruise of Fiona’s arm.
“I feel a little lump here,” Trishia announced with a worried look.
“That’s old,” Robin answered. “I had an accident once. Broke two ribs. It might be just cracked right now. I’d know more if I could get up. Can you help me up?”
“Are you sure?” Sam asked with concern.
“Yes, I am,” Robin nodded. “Besides, I can’t stay here.” She glanced up at Fiona and managed a small smile. “I don’t want the Yowie to get me.”
“Alright, let’s get you to your feet then,” Trishia sighed, knowing Robin was right. She admired the woman’s spirit. Robin knew the walk back up the hill would be very hard on her.
Sam and Trishia carefully helped Robin to her feet and while the woman was leaning her back against the tree that had broken her fall, she let out a relieved breath.
“I’m starting to think I’m having a lucky day,” she said. “My side is a little sore, but other than that and my shoulder, I guess I’m okay.”
“I’m glad,” Trishia nodded. “I shouldn’t have let you , Sam, or Fiona come. It’s too…”
“It was my choice,” Robin interrupted. “Now, while I stay here to gather up courage for the hike back up, why don’t you check out that spider tree,” Robin suggested, gesturing towards the tree Fiona had pointed out before and that was now only a few steps away.
“Alright. Fiona, you stay here, with Robin. When I need your camera, I’ll let you know. Come on, Sam,” Trishia spoke, making her way through the few bushes that separated her from her goal.
Robin’s unexpected fall and collision with the tree had scared her senseless and she wanted to return back to the car as soon as possible. Even though Robin claimed to be alright, it was still possible the woman had sustained some internal injuries and the sooner they would be able to get to a hospital, the better it would be.
“Don’t you want to sit down?” Fiona softly asked when Sam and Trishia had continued their hike.
“No, I don’t. Well, I’d love to,” Robin sighed. “But I’m afraid I won’t be able to get up again if I do sit down. And I think breathing hurts less when I’m upright. Is my face bleeding? It feels funny.”
“You have a cut just above your eyebrow,” Fiona explained. “It’s still bleeding. I can clean it up, if you want me to.”
“Don’t tell me you carry a first-aid kit around with you?”
“Of course,” Fiona grinned, happy to see Robin was still in good spirits. “I spend a lot of time in nature, sometimes hours away from civilization. I’d like to be prepared for the worst.”
“In that case, by all means. Do you have butterflies?” Robin asked, watching how Fiona pulled a little box out of her camera bag.
“I do,” the photographer chuckled. “Like I said, I come prepared”
“You’ re a woman after my heart,” Robin sighed, leaning the back of her head against the tree and closing her eyes, while Fiona started to clean the cut with careful, gentle fingers.
“Oh, so now I’m a woman,” Fiona teased. “While, yesterday, you wondered if I was old enough to be a photographer.”
“It was an honest mistake,” Robin defended herself with a smile. “You look so young. But you were right, I shouldn’t have assumed things.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Fiona responded in a serious tone. “But it’s alright, I suppose we all make that mistake every now and then.”
“Young and wise,” Robin softly chuckled, ignoring the pain in her head.
“And those are just two of my excellent qualities,” Fiona grinned. “Let’s not forget my charm, wit and intelligence.”
“Or your cynicism and talent to get into trouble.”
“Might I remind you that this time it was you who happily tumbled down the mountain?” Fiona answered with gentle humor.
“I guess you’ re right,” Robin replied, opening her eyes, shocked by Fiona’s close presence. She suppressed a tired smile when Fiona almost stepped back, but changed her mind immediately, carefully closing the gash in Robin’s forehead with a butterfly.
“I should have paid attention,” Robin mused, closing her eyes again, hearing a little voice in the back of her mind.
Yes, Robin Adams, you really should have! Or were you?
Trishia stepped over a dead tree that had been destroyed by lightning a long time ago. Just a few steps away from her was the tree Fiona had pointed out and Trishia’s eyes scanned the forest floor, looking for anything that might be a clue in the case she had to solve.
She knew Sam was following her closely. She could hear her tall friend right behind her.
“We’ re in the area, Sam,” she spoke, without turning around. Her eyes were glued to the ground, systematically sweeping the area in front of her, looking for anything that seemed out of place.
“Let’s go around that tree,” she suggested. “I’ll take the left, you take the right.
“Sure,” Sam answered calmly, concentrating fully on her task. She knew how meticulous her sister-in-law was and she would hate to miss a clue. Or destroy one.
Passing the tree on the right hand side, Sam instinctively bent forward in an unconscious attempt to be closer to the ground. She halted when she noticed a trampled patch of dirt and carefully sidestepped it, halting in her tracks when her eyes fell on a nearby bush.
Quickly blinking her eyes a few times, Sam tried to convince herself that she wasn’t imagining things. It was like a cold hand had grabbed her stomach and slowly started squeezing.
“Trish,” she called out in a hoarse voice. “I found something.”
The police woman’s head appeared from behind a bush and she looked at Sam expectantly.
“What is it?” she asked with a frown, noticing the horror in her friend’s eyes.
Sam swallowed hard and pointed at the bush to her right.
Fiona, who was casually leaning her shoulder against a tree, cast a concerned look at Robin.
“Are you falling asleep?” she asked with a hint of worry. It was possible the other woman, when she had slipped and fallen, had bumped her head a lot harder than she was willing to admit.
“No, I’m not,” Robin sighed, opening her eyes. “But I admit that I’d love to doze off.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Fiona responded. “You must be very uncomfortable, not to mention in pain.”
“I am,” Robin answered, letting out a soft moan when she tried to change her position. Her sore body was rapidly going stiff, adding to the already almost unbearable discomfort. “But you could tell me a story,” she joked weakly.
“I’m a lousy storyteller,” Fiona chuckled. “You’d be asleep in minutes.”
Robin smiled and cast a look at the tall, slender woman in front of her. Fiona McDonnell certainly was as attractive as her beautiful sister Lucy and the charming part about her was that Fiona could not care less.
“How long have Sam and Jody known each other?” she asked curiously. In the few hours she had been able to observe the couple, she had been intrigued by the obvious deep connection the two women shared.
“A lifetime,” Fiona slowly answered, smiling when Robin’s eyes opened wide.
“No, not literally. They have known each other ever since Jody was eighteen years old. I was only six at the time. So that’s fifteen years ago.”
“Have they been together all the time?”
For a brief moment, Fiona’s face clouded over and Robin watched with interest when a flash of pain darkened the photographer’s eyes.
“No, unfortunately not. Something happened and they were forced apart, until Sam came back about five years ago,” Fiona related, not aware of the happiness that radiated from her expressive eyes.
“They married and now they’ll live happily ever after,” she concluded.
“Married?” Robin echoed. “You mean a commitment ceremony?”
“No,” Fiona shook her head. “That’s what Lucy and Trishia had. No, Jody and Sam are legally married, according to the Dutch law.”
“Sam is Dutch?” Robin asked with surprise..
“Yes, she is, although you wouldn’t know when you hear her talk. I’ve heard her curse in Dutch though, once or twice. It was funny. I asked her to teach me, but she refused to,” Fiona grinned.
“They seem very happy together,” Robin spoke softly, staring in the distance with a faraway look in her eyes.
“They are,” Fiona nodded. “The day Sam came back was the best day in my life.”
What’s the matter with you, McDonnell? What’s with the openness?
“It was, huh?” Robin drawled, noticing the almost embarrassed way Fiona avoided her eyes. She suspected the photographer had just accidentally revealed something she’d rather keep to herself. Interesting.
“My first impression of Jody is that she’s a wonderful person. Warm and loving. No wonder you wanted to see her happy,” Robin guessed, knowing by Fiona’s barely visible blush that she had discovered a major soft spot in the cynical photographer’s armor: Jody.
“You know, Fiona McDonnell,” Robin continued, resting her head against the tree and closing her eyes again. “I think you are a softie.”
She smiled when she heard Fiona softly snort and, without looking at her, she knew Fiona’s face was sporting an indignant frown.
“Well, Miss conservation biologist turned manager turned psycho-analyst, don’t tell the world. They might not believe you.”
“Is it the reputation thing?” Robin teased lightly.
“What else?” Fiona grinned, still feeling a little unsettled after Robin’s words. They had been so true, it had given her an eerie feeling. How was it possible that somebody she had known for just a little over a day, could read her so well? Maybe it had been a lucky guess.
Fiona nibbled her bottom lip and observed the woman who was leaning against the tree. Robin’s face had been cleaned up and Fiona had neatly used two butterflies to close the gash over her eyebrow. But the manager looked tired and, even with her eyes closed, she seemed to be in pain.
Fiona wished there was something she could do to help the other woman feel better. She knew the walk back up the steep hill would be very difficult for Robin and she was determined to support the other woman as much as she could.
That would be the right thing to do. It wasn’t Robin’s fault she was dragged into one of the McDonnell-Stevens’ adventures and Fiona decided she felt somewhat responsible for the situation they were in.
Helping Robin and trying to be nice would be the right thing to do. Besides, it was what Sam and Jody expected from her. Right?
“What the heck?”
Trishia quickly, but carefully put her long legs to good use and with a few strides she was at Sam’s side, following the blonde’s gaze. As soon as her eyes noticed the discovery that had Sam frozen to the spot, she sucked in a breath.
From under one of the bushes something that suspiciously resembled a leg stuck out from under the branches. Only part of a shoe and what appeared to be a foot was visible, the rest was obscured from view.
Trishia looked around and bent down to pick up a long, thin branch. Stepping closer to the bush, she carefully put down her feet, trying to avoid trampling the scene. Using the crooked stick, she pushed aside the lower branches, so she could take a better look at what was dumped on the forest floor.
Sam followed Trishia’s every move and she let out a shaky breath when the rest of her discovery came into view.
“Oh, thank goodness, it’s just a shoe,” she said with obvious relief, mentally slapping herself for the fact her imagination had gotten the best of her, at least for a brief moment.
“Actually, it’s not,” Trishia objected in a low voice. “It’s covered in what seems to be blood. And there’s a sock stuffed in there, also pretty bloody.” Trishia cautiously moved a little closer. “I can’t wait to see the lab results on this one,” she mumbled. “I smell a rat.”
“I guess it’s not very likely for a person to lose a shoe like that in an overgrown part of the rainforest, huh?” Sam sighed.
“Not really,” Trishia answered. “Especially, not this far away from any path or track. No, Sam, this was put here for a reason and I’m very eager to find out why.”
“To get rid of…evidence of some sort?” Sam guessed.
“You’d think we’d find a whole body, if that was the case,” Trishia replied, stretching her back and turning around to face her friend. “But then, we still might,” she added somberly, looking around the dense area.
It would be hard work to find anything else that could give them a clue about what was going on. The forest was so dense, she could hardly see a couple of meters in front of her. She knew Fiona and Robin were close by; if she strained her ears she could hear their voices, but it was impossible to see them.
If somebody had tried to hide a body, Trishia knew they would definitely find more clues. She would need to get more of her people to the mountain, so they could do a thorough search of the grounds. Meter for meter.
“So much for a nice relaxed weekend,” she sighed. “I need to get more people in here, Sam. And I’ll need to seal off the area. I’m sorry, but until we’ve completed a search, I can’t allow anyone up here. I’m afraid your restoration schedule will be completely messed up now.”
“Yes, that’s for sure,” Sam sighed, raking her fingers through her hair. “How long do you think it will take?”
“At least a few days, maybe longer. It’s a huge area, Sam, and the terrain is anything but easy. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Trish,” Sam answered in a tired voice, in her mind already going over the list of contractors she needed to call. This was going to cost the company a lot of money. Her brother and dad would not be happy.
Sam straightened her back and tried to ignore the dull pain in her leg. When she had seen Robin fall and roll down the hill, she had tried to reach the woman as fast as she could, but the steep, uneven forest floor had taken a toll on her leg. She had stumbled a few times when her feet had stepped on a slippery tree root and only her quick reflexes and a large dosage of luck had prevented her from sharing Robin’s fate.
“Are you alright, Sam?” Trishia asked with concern. She knew her friend could be very hard on herself, pushing herself to the limit. But the last thing Trishia wanted was Sam being in pain.
“I’m okay,” Sam answered with a weak smile. “Years ago, my orthopedic surgeon told me I had to give up mountaineering. I guess he was right,” she added with a wry grin. “But I’ll live. I’m sure Robin is in worse shape.”
“I’m sure she is,” Trishia agreed. “We need to get her back up there, so she can go to a hospital and get checked out. She really slammed hard into that tree. I’m worried about her.”
“Do you need Fiona’s camera before we leave?” Sam asked softly. “I can walk back and get it for you.”
“You think she’ll part with it?” Trishia smiled, knowing how precious the sensitive equipment was to her sister-in-law. Only on very rare occasions did Fiona allow somebody else to touch her cameras.
“I can try,” Sam grinned. “I’ll just use my ‘Innocent Baby Blues routine’.”
“Good luck on that one, mate,” Trishia chuckled. “As far as I know, that only works with Jody.”
“I’ll be right back,” Sam grinned, turning around and making her way through the dense bushes to where Robin and Fiona were waiting for them.
She found them both leaning against a tree, seemingly lost in thought. Robin had her eyes closed, her right arm was pressed against her stomach and was supported by her left arm in an effort to immobilize the hurt shoulder. Her face was drawn and pale and Sam realized she had to be in pain.
As soon as Sam had made her way through the bushes, Fiona had looked up and eyed her curiously.
“Did you find anything?” she asked softly.
Sam nodded and stepped closer.
“Yes, we did and Trishia wants some pictures. We need to go back up, so Trish can arrange for a search party, or whatever they call that. This area needs to be sealed off.”
“What did you find?” Fiona frowned. “A dead body?”
Robin opened her eyes and sent Sam a tired, but inquisitive look.
“Did you?” her husky voice sounded.
“No,” Sam shook her head. “Not yet anyway,” she added dryly, telling them about the blood stained shoe and sock.
“Creepy,” Robin mumbled, carefully rubbing her forehead where a big lump had appeared.
“At least, I’m glad I didn’t drag you all out here for nothing,” Fiona remarked, casting a guilt-filled glance at Robin. Turning her attention back to Sam, she nodded at the tall blonde and let her camera bag slid from her shoulder.
“You know how the thing works, don’t you?” she asked, looking up with a puzzled expression when there was no answer. “Sam?”
“Oh…um…yes, I do. But…don’t you want to…?”
Fiona shrugged her shoulders and tried very hard to look nonchalant.
“Nah, go ahead. I’m sure Trish doesn’t want all the evidence ruined by my big feet. I trust you with my baby,” she added with a grin.
“Um..sure, alright,” Sam nodded, still lost for words after Fiona’s suggestion. She had prepared herself for a discussion in which she would have tried to convince the stubborn photographer to let her or Trishia use the camera. Instead, Fiona had flabbergasted her by simply handing her the camera.
I’ve just witnessed a miracle.
“Great, thanks Fi. I’ll be careful. I won’t drop it, sit on it, or get it full of sand and bugs,” Sam joked, glad to have regained her ability to string a few words together.
“If you do, you’ll be the one taking it apart and cleaning it,” Fiona threatened with a wink. “I’ll need it for that pageant next week.”
“It will be pampered,” Sam promised, turning around and heading back to the patiently waiting Trishia.
“Oh, right, the pageant,” Robin softly chuckled. “Do you think it’s too late for me to sign up for that? I might have a chance in the ‘horror’ category.”
“I don’t think they have a category like that,” Fiona answered. “But maybe we can suggest it and start a whole new trend. Can I be your manager?”
Robin smiled and through her thick eyelashes she glanced at the dark-haired woman, who was leaning against a tree, twirling a twig between long, slender fingers. She seemed so relaxed and at ease in the forest, it didn’t surprise Robin she was a good photographer of nature. The photos she had seen in Sam’s office were a testament to that. She wondered if Fiona would give her a tour of her studio. She really wanted to see more of the young woman’s work.
“Doesn’t your job keep you busy enough already?” she asked.
“I’ve a lot of energy,” Fiona explained. “But yes, it might be a little too much. I have enough going on at the moment. I’ll have to turn in a paper as well next week.”
“A paper?” Robin asked with raised eyebrows.
“Yes, I’m wrapping up some stuff. This last paper should get me my degree in software engineering,” Fiona answered casually. She noticed the look of surprise on Robin’s face and chuckled.
“I’m more than just a pretty face, you know.” she joked.
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Robin answered, delighted to have unraveled yet another piece of the ‘Fiona McDonnell’ puzzle. “I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be,” Fiona answered in a serious tone. “I’m just me.”
“Yes, but since you’ re only twenty- one years old, you must have been really young when you started this study.”
“What can I say? I’m a fast reader,” Fiona grinned. “It really bugs you I’m twenty-one, doesn’t it?” she teased, effortlessly changing the subject.
“Not really,” Robin answered, shaking her head, which made her wince in pain. “I’m just amazed that you’ve accomplished so much already. I admire that.”
“You’ve not done so badly yourself,” Fiona replied, stuffing her hands back in her pocket and crossing her ankles. “You’ re a conservation biologist, hired by Sam to run the new resort and you’re…what? Twenty-five?”
“Oh, you flatterer,” Robin smiled, amused by Fiona’s attempt to divert the attention away from herself. “I’m a little older than that. I’ll be twenty-eight in a few weeks.”
“Cool, I like parties,” Fiona smiled.
“Who says you’re invited?” Robin shot back.
“Who else would take pictures on a professional level for just a piece of cake and a cup of coffee?” Fiona quipped.
“I think you have a point,” Robin nodded, enjoying the light banter that distracted her from the pain in her bruised body.
“Of course I do,” Fiona smiled brightly, sending Robin a triumphant look. Out of sight, but close enough to hear them talk softly, she heard the voices of Sam and Trishia and the expression on her face darkened.
“Do you think somebody was killed here?” she asked, feeling a shiver run down her back.
“I don’t know, Fiona,” Robin answered in a soft voice. “But if the shoe Sam was talking about is any indication, we might have a serious situation on our hands here.”
“That sucks,” Fiona mumbled. “I thought we’ve had our share of murder mysteries.”
“Really? How so?”
Fiona shook her head and slowly exhaled, before shrugging her shoulders and pushing away from the tree she had been using as a backrest. She could hear Trishia and Sam approach.
“It’s a long story,” she answered. “I’ll tell you some other time.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Robin replied, which earned her a small smile from the tall photographer.
“Alright, girls, we need to get out of here,” Trishia greeted them, handing Fiona her camera back. “Are you alright, Fi?” she asked, looking at the younger woman with a mixture of concern and curiosity. It had been hard to believe Sam, when she had told her Fiona had just handed her the camera without a word of protest. It was weird and she wondered if the lack of sleep was catching up to her sister-in-law.
“I’m good,” Fiona answered, taking over the camera and putting it back in the bag. She missed the puzzled glance Sam and Trishia exchanged, but Robin had noticed and, in spite of the pain she was in, she suppressed a smile.
The interaction between the different family members was definitely interesting.
“Okay, Robin, do you think you can walk?” Trishia asked gently, eying the manager with concern. The hike back up the hill was steep and slippery and there was a real risk of falling, for all of them.
“I have no choice,” Robin answered calmly. “I’ll have to grit my teeth and keep going.”
“We’ ll help you,” Sam promised.
“I appreciate that, Sam, but I’m sure you’ll have enough trouble getting back up,” Robin answered, having seen the gradually worsening limp in the tall blonde’s gait.
“We’ll help,” Fiona decided, putting her camera bag on the ground. “And the first thing you’ll need is a sling to keep that arm from moving.”
Before anyone had a chance to respond, Fiona had pulled her t-shirt over her head, leaving her clad in only a pair of shorts and a black sports bra. When she noticed the astonished looks she was receiving, she just shrugged her freckled shoulders and stepped closer to Robin.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m sure there’s more to see on the beach and I’m sure the two of you see a naked woman every day. For heaven’s sake, it’s only a bra.”
“And a nice one too,” Sam chuckled.
“I’m sure Lucy has the same one,” Trishia grinned. “It looks familiar.”
“She probably has,” Fiona nodded with a grin. “I bought this one on a rare shopping trip with mom and the sisters. Alright, Robin, carefully lift your arm a little, so I can slip this underneath.”
Robin silently obeyed, very aware of the scarcely clad woman standing next to her. Breathing suddenly became a lot more difficult when her arm&; accidentally touched Fiona’s bare skin. But the photographer, concentrating on her task, did not seem to notice and Robin slowly exhaled.
“You’ll be covered in scratches before we get up there,” she finally managed to say.
“I’ll be fine,” Fiona answered. “I’m used to scratches, leeches and sand-flees.” She carefully tied a knot in the makeshift sling. “Not necessarily in that order,” she added dryly.
“Yes, Fiona spends a lot of time crawling through the dirt,” Sam provided helpfully, grabbing Fiona’s camera bag and hanging it around her shoulder. Fiona, who was about to object, silently nodded when Sam shot her a warning look. Her sister- in-law was right. She would need both hands to help Robin.
“Alright, let’s go,” Trishia encouraged, walking in front of Robin so she could clear a path through the dense foliage, careful to bend back the branches that could swipe Robin’s face or shoulder.
As by silent agreement, Fiona was walking behind Robin, quick to put a hand on the other woman’s back when she threatened to lose her balance. The first time she felt her foot slip away from underneath her, Robin closed her eyes in horror, waiting for the painful thump when her body would hit the ground.
But a warm hand around her left arm provided the support she needed and with a sigh of relief, she shot Fiona a grateful look.
“No worries,” was the calm reply. “I live to serve,” Fiona added with a grin.
“It’s appreciated,” Robin mumbled, staring at the hill in front of her and wondering how she would ever make it back to the car.
“Hang in there, Robin,” Trishia encouraged, having noticed the look of despair. “We’ll get there.”
“Sure, sure,” Robin muttered. “The question is: when, though.”
They continued their slow walk uphill, every now and then pausing to give Robin a chance to catch her breath. The breaks were short, because Robin knew the longer she would stand still, the harder it was to continue moving. Her head and ribs were throbbing in sync with the pumping of her heart, while every unexpected movement caused a sharp pain to shoot through her shoulder.
“Keep going,” Fiona softly encouraged, aware of Robin’s struggle. “I’ll be right behind you, but I need to tie my shoelace,” she explained, already kneeling down to put a new knot in the long, mud covered laces.
Keeping an eye on Robin, Fiona made quick work of tying her shoelaces and just when she wanted to get up, she became aware of a soft, hardly audible noise behind her. Experiencing the same sensation as the previous day, after having spotted the lone, dark figure in the forest, Fiona felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up and she had to fight the urge to turn around. Goose bumps erupted all over her skin when she became aware of the eerie feeling that somebody was watching her. And that someone was close enough for her to hear the occasional rustling of leaves and footsteps, trying not to make a sound.
Feeling her heart pound in her chest, Fiona fought the urge to panic. Instead she took a deep breath, straightened up and quickly followed her companions, catching up with them after just a few seconds.
Walking very close behind Robin, she put a hand on the other woman’s arm, seemingly supporting her in her difficult climb.
“Don’t ask me why and don’t turn around, but you’ll have to ask Trishia to take a break for a moment,” Fiona urged in a whisper.
Robin had only known Fiona for a short time, but the tone of her voice was deadly serious and she realized the photographer was not joking. Wiping her damp forehead, Robin looked up at Trishia, who was a few meters in front of her, bending back some thorn covered branches.
“Trish,” Robin called out with a hoarse voice. “I need a break.”
“Sure, Robin,” Trishia immediately replied, casting a look at Sam, who was standing next to her, rubbing her right calf.
Fiona and Robin continued their climb, until they had reached the other two women. Staying behind Robin, Fiona looked at Trishia and when the police woman noticed the expression on her face, her eyes lost all fatigue. In an instant, Trishia Waters was in full police mode, alert and sharp.
“What’s wrong?” she asked softly, scanning the bushes behind Fiona with clear, inquisitive eyes.
“There’s someone following us,” Fiona whispered. “I heard it when I was tying my shoelaces.”
Trishia just nodded and cast a look at the distance they would still need to cover. She estimated it would take them at least another fifteen minutes to reach the path that lead back to the car. She wondered if their cell phones would work. They hadn’t when they had been taking pictures of the shoe and the area they had found it in. Trishia had tried, but the forest had disturbed the signal. Maybe being higher on the hill would make a difference. She knew she had to try, preferably without their stalker noticing.
Moistening her dry lips, Trishia wondered if the person following them was the same one who had fired the shot the night before. In that case, he could be armed. And dangerous.
Softly muttering a curse, Trishia wished she would have given in to her instincts that morning, when she had debated whether to take her gun with her, or lock it in its drawer. Since they were going to Sam and Jody’s, she had chosen to leave it at home.
Looking at Sam, her eyes traveled to Fiona and then to Robin. It was obvious to the other women that Trishia was in the process of making a decision.
“Alright, Robin. May I?” she spoke in low tone and the other woman nodded, reaching underneath her shirt, pulling out a small, but serious looking gun.
“What the heck?” Fiona almost exclaimed.
With wide eyes, she looked at the weapon Trishia was holding in her hands and she had to fight the urge to take a step back. Her gaze traveled to Trishia, who quickly checked the gun, taking it off safety, to Sam who looked worried, but not phased at all.
“I didn’t know carrying a gun was part of the job description,” Fiona coolly remarked, sending Sam an accusing look.
“I can explain, Fiona,” Trishia answered calmly, keeping an eye on the trees and bushes behind them. “Things are not exactly what they seem.”
Pulling a face, Fiona sent the tall police woman an angry stare.
“Well, duh!” she almost sneered, feeling completely betrayed by the other three women. “Apparently, I am the only one who wasn’t aware of the fact that we were on an official X-files mission. Silly me,” she added cynically.
Fiona was angry and disappointed at the same time. She knew Trishia often was involved in things she could not talk about, but she understood and respected that. It came with the job. But discovering that Sam was involved as well, somehow, was a little more upsetting. And the knowledge that Robin, whom she had come to like and appreciate, had been able to fool her completely, was infuriating.
Conservation biologist. Yeah, right!
“Well, I’d love to hear all the explanations, but I’m afraid we have more pressing matters,” she continued in a voice, void of any expression. “What’s the plan, Trish?”
Robin had heard Fiona’s voice change from anger to sarcasm to, finally, cool detachment and inwardly she cringed. Things had not been going according to plan, at all and the unexpected events had been upsetting to Fiona, who, Robin had discovered, was more sensitive than she cared to admit.
A quick glance at the photographer’s face showed a pair of eyes that were dark with anger and Robin feared that the tentative friendship that had started to develop between herself and Fiona had come to an untimely ending.
“I’ll walk behind Robin,” Trishia’s voice interrupted Robin’s musings. “Keep going, Sam.”
In a tense silence, the women continued their climb up the hill, unconsciously trying to increase their speed, fighting the urge to run or look over their shoulder. Trishia, holding her small cell phone in the palm of her hand, kept checking for a signal, but, to her utter frustration, the display showed her there was no signal yet.
“We rely on modern technology too much, anyway,” she muttered, aware of the gun she had tucked in the waistband of her shorts. The feel of the weapon against her skin was both reassuring and chilling. She really hoped she would not be forced to use it.
Concentrating, Trishia discovered that Fiona was right. Not that she had been doubting the young photographer. The dark-green eyes had been deadly serious. At a small distance behind her, she could hear the soft rustling of leaves and the occasional heavier footstep, probably when their stalker’s feet slipped off the root of a tree or a rock.
Trishia looked up and noticed how Fiona reached out to put her hand on Robin’s left arm, so she could lead the woman around a big boulder that was blocking their way. Fiona’s face was uncharacteristically drawn and Trishia noticed how she carefully avoided eye-contact with Robin.
With a small sigh, Trishia wondered if they had done the right thing. Maybe they should have told Fiona a little more about the situation, but then, nobody had expected things to get so out of control. She could imagine it must have been a shock for the youngest McDonnell to suddenly see Robin pull out a gun, while Fiona didn’t know any more than that Robin was a biologist.
Trishia slowly exhaled. But Robin was. Among other things. It had not been a lie, but she realized Fiona felt like she had been deceived. And basically she had been, sort of, anyway.
Casting another look at the two women in front of her, Trishia decided she had to do some damage control. As soon as they got back home.
Robin bit her lip, while she winced in pain. The branch Fiona had carefully pulled away had suddenly slipped out of her hand, bouncing back and grazing Robin’s shoulder.
Trying to catch her breath, she told herself how lucky she was it had not hit her with full force. She was convinced she would have passed out if that had happened.
“Oh crap! I’m sorry,” Fiona’s voice penetrated the foggy haze of pain. “I’m sorry, Robin.”
Glancing up, Robin saw the shock and guilt in Fiona’s eyes and she nodded carefully, ignoring the pain in her head.
“It’s alright, Fiona,” she answered with a hoarse voice. “It was an accident.”
Fiona did not answer, she just extended her hand, making sure Robin would not slip and fall. They were nearly there. Fiona could tell by the flattening of the hillside where the path was and she knew it was only a few more minutes.
Glancing aside at the silently struggling Sam, she felt a lump rise in her throat and she swallowed hard. She wished she had not snapped at Sam. Her rational mind told her there had to be a reason for all the secrecy that seemed to surround the events of the last two days. She loved Sam deeply and knew the tall blonde always had a reason for the things she did. She trusted Sam. She always had and her sister’s wife did not deserve the harsh words Fiona had spoken.
Fiona sighed, not aware of the sad look in her eyes. Trishia had not deserved it either and, come to think of it, neither did Robin. But she had felt like such an idiot, not knowing what was going on, not even knowing there was something going on in the first place. She knew Sam and Trishia well enough to know there had to be a good reason for their actions.
Fiona had reached the path and absentmindedly she reached out a hand to help Robin with the last, steep step. Then she turned her attention to Sam, who had put the camera bag on the ground and had bent over to massage her aching leg, softly muttering to herself.
“Is it a cramp, Sam?” she asked with concern, knowing how much they could hurt. Sam just nodded and limped to the side of the path where she had spotted a tree stump that could serve as a seat.
As soon as she sat down, Fiona knelt down in front of her, grabbing Sam’s right foot and gently pressing the toes upward, like she had seen her sister do so many times before.
“Thanks, Fi,” Sam breathed, feeling the cramp slowly subside, leaving her leg throbbing and tired. She smiled at the young woman and playfully ruffled the dark hair, immediately seeing the somber look disappear.
“About earlier, I…I’m sorry Sam, I shouldn’t have…”
“No worries, Red,” Sam smiled, having seen the genuine regret on Fiona’s face. “You were upset and I understand. I would have been too, if it had been me.” Looking at Trishia, who was checking her phone again, Sam continued. “When we get back home, we’ll need to talk. I don’t want to leave you in the dark completely. You’ re too smart for that, anyway. What were we thinking, huh?” she smiled.
“Obviously you weren’t,” Fiona shot back, relieved beyond words that Sam was so understanding.
“Inspector? It’s me, Trishia. I need your permission…” Trishia lowered her voice and while she kept an eye on the hillside they had just climbed, she had a quick conversation with Carol Wong, her superior officer. When she was done, she tucked away the phone and cast a look at the three women who seemed to be in different stages of fatigue, with Fiona being the most energetic of them all.
The dark-haired photographer had jumped back up when she noticed Robin was trying to get her injured shoulder out of the makeshift sling.
“What are you doing?” she frowned.
“Getting you your shirt back,” Robin answered, letting out a muffled moan when a sharp pain shot through her body.
“Leave it,” Fiona replied. “You’ll still have to walk to the car.”
Robin opened her mouth to object, but a warning, yet sympathetic look from Sam stopped her.
“Come on, Robin, let’s get you to the hospital,” Trishia spoke loudly, gesturing the other three women to walk ahead of her on the path. Again, the police woman would bring up the rear, knowing that whoever was stalking them, was still there. But she had a plan. Carol Wong would send in a few more teams and had told Trishia she would inform the dog team that was still on the mountain. A patrol car had been at the office building of the resort and Trishia knew that any moment now, she could expect a few police officers to come running down the path. As soon as they would arrive, she would go back and try to figure out who had been following them. Hopefully, the element of surprise would be to their advantage. For now she wanted to give their stalker the impression they were not aware of his company. But soon, that would change.
“Sam,” she called out softly, watching as the tall blonde turned her head and looked at her. Trishia gestured her to come closer and Sam half-turned to let Fiona and Robin pass.
Putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder, Trishia encouraged Sam to keep walking, while she tried to divide her attention between the women she felt responsible for and the stalker who was still behind them, somewhere, hidden from view.
“Listen, Sam, there’rereinforcements on the way. As soon as they’re here, I want you and the girls to keep going. Get into my car and get Robin to a hospital,” she said, pressing her car keys in Sam’s hand. “I’ll get a ride home, don’t worry about me,”she added, when she saw the expression on the other woman’s face. “Just make sure that Robin and Fiona are safe.”
“I will, don’t worry,” Sam nodded. “Give Lucy a call as soon as you can though. She’ll only believe you’re alright when she actually hears you say it. You know how she is,” Sam added with a smile.
“I know, believe me,” Trishia nodded, remembering the weeks and months following her shootout with Martin Coles. She had been shot in the shoulder and chest, but had been very, very lucky. The bullet had entered and exited without doing too much damage.
Lucy had been frantic with worry the first day Trisha had to return back to work, after a few weeks of intense rehabilitation. She had spent the day at home, pacing the livingroom, waiting for Trishia to call her every few hours, which the police woman did dutifully. Trishia’s patience had paid off, because after a few weeks, Lucy’s fear had subsided enough for her to talk to her partner rationally.
She had also talked to Sharon Jones, the wife of Trishia’s police partner, who had been enormously helpful. The older woman had been able to help Lucy to find ways to channel and control her fear that would never disappear completely, but, at least, had become more manageable.
“Alright, Sam, here they are,” Trishia spoke, hearing the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. “Fiona, Robin, do as Sam tells you to do, I’ll see you later.” She looked Fiona straight in the eye and nodded. “We’ll talk then.”
Before Fiona could open her mouth to respond, four uniformed police officers suddenly came running around the corner and with a mixture of surprise and shock, Robin and Fiona watched Trishia turn around to head back into the forest, the police officers close behind her.
The sound of snapping twigs and branches made it clear to them that their stalker had decided to head in the other direction, back down the hill again, this time followed by five determined police officers.
“Alright, let’s go,” Sam sighed, wrapping an arm around Fiona’s shoulders to give her a quick, one armed hug. “How are you holding up, Fi?”
“Pretty good, especially compared to the two of you,” Fiona answered dryly. “I’m only half-naked, you two are in pain.”
“I’m fine,” Robin spoke up, but the tone in her voice belied the words.
“No, you’re not,” Fiona answered curtly. “You’ re pretty banged up and we need to get you to a hospital.”
“Not before I give you back your shirt,” Robin replied with a stubborn expression on her face.
“I told you I don’t need…”
“Yes, you do,” Robin interrupted the photographer in a tone of voice that should have been a warning. The manager was tired and hurting.
Without saying another word, Robin started to ease her arm out of the makeshift sling, wincing when she jarred her injured shoulder.
“See? You need the thing,” Fiona’s voice immediately sounded, making Robin clench her jaw in frustration. Did the photographer never give up?
“I don’t need it as much as you do. Unless you want to walk into that hospital attracting all sorts of attention.”
“Maybe I like attention,” Fiona responded in a cool voice.
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Robin mumbled in a tired voice, using her left hand to lift the t-shirt over her head and hand it to Fiona. “Here, take it.” And for crying out loud, put it back on!!! “Thanks for letting me use it. I really appreciate it, Fiona,” she added softly.
Fiona, who was about to make another of her trade-mark cynical remarks, changed her mind and mentally slapped herself. No matter how disappointed she was in Robin, the woman was injured and in pain. Going into a verbal sparring session with her would be very inconsiderate.
“Alright, since you’ re so sure you don’t need it anymore, ” Fiona sighed, untying the knot in the shirt and quickly putting it back on again. It was wrinkled and damp and she detected the lingering smell of Robin’s perfume. It was a light and fresh scent that reminded her of a crisp winter morning when the sun had just come up, painting the world in shades of orange, while nature was covered in morning dew, preparing for the day, waiting for the chill to be chased away by the comfortable warmth of the sun.
Fiona liked it.
Sam carefully put away her cell phone and turned around to walk back into the hospital again. The hallway leading to the waiting area of the emergency room was long. At the moment, almost too long for Sam who could feel the throbbing ache in her leg get worse with every step she took. What she needed was a soak in the jacuzzi she had installed when she and Jody bought the house. The tub was big enough for her to stretch out her legs and the combination of warm water and massaging bubbles always made her feel better. Especially, when she was accompanied by her partner.
Sam smiled when she replayed her conversation with Jody in her head. Her partner had been understanding, but worried. And even though she had just met Robin, she was in full mother-hen mode.
Sam almost chuckled. People who had just met Jody often were mistaken about the redhead, always complimenting her about her domestic abilities, not realizing Jody’s mind was as sharp as Fiona’s. In business, Sam never made a difficult decision without talking things through with her partner. She respected and valued her opinion more than anyone else’s. Sam knew that Jody was her strength. In so many different ways.
“Hey, Red,” Sam greeted Fiona, sinking next to her on the low, uncomfortable looking couch in the waiting room. “Did you hear anything yet?”
“No,” Fiona shook her head. “That bloke said they could be a while. You’d think taking a few x-rays would be done in no time, huh?”
“Well, we don’t know whatever’s going on behind those doors,” Sam replied, shifting in her seat. “They might have a hefty workload.”
“I guess,” Fiona shrugged her shoulders. She quietly looked around the waiting area. She detested the place. The last time she had been there was when Trishia had been shot. Fiona cast down her eyes and sighed. Talking a walk down memory lane was not always entertaining. They had feared for Trishia’s life and only the surgeon who had repaired the damage, had been able to lift that constricting band of fear around their hearts.
“I know,” she suddenly heard Sam’s voice close to her ear, while a long arm wrapped around her shoulders. “I remember it, too. I’m so grateful we all survived that.”
“Except for the bad guy,” Fiona answered.
“Except for him,” Sam repeated, knowing she would never be able to forget the image of Martin Coles and the madness in his eyes when he advanced on her and Trishia. The policewoman had done the only thing possible to stop him. She had shot him.
“Do you think we’ll end up in a situation like that again, Sam?”
“I sure hope not,” Sam sighed with a frown. “I hope Trish can get a hold of the person who was stalking us and solve this…situation. End of story. I hope.”
“I bet it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Fiona answered, leaning against Sam. “It has to be.” She glanced up at the tall blonde. “Sam, who and what is Robin?”
Sam, who had been expecting that question, dropped a kiss on the top of Fiona’s head and pulled her closer. To her, Fiona would always be Jody’s little sister.
“Robin Adams is who she says she is, a conservation biologist, whom I hired to manage the new resort,” Sam answered softly. “I know there’s more to it, Fiona, but you’ll have to talk to Robin about that. And to Trish.”
“Part of it is, yes.”
“Is Robin some kind of undercover agent?”
“She’s a conservation biologist, Fiona,” Sam repeated gently. “That’s why I wanted her on board.”
“I get it,” Fiona sighed. “You’ re sworn to secrecy. But I felt like an idiot, Sam, when she handed Trish that gun, like I was in some sleazy B-movie, or something. For a moment. I didn’t know what to think, or to believe. I still don’t,” she ended softly. “Not really.”
“Samantha Stevens?” a voice called out and immediately both Sam and Fiona looked up to see an elderly man standing in the doorway. His glasses were balancing on the tip of his nose, while the bright hall light was reflected by his shiny, bald head.
“Yes, doctor,” Sam answered politely, slowly getting to her feet.
He shot her a startled look when she towered over him and looked positively stunned when Fiona had risen to her full length as well.
“Um…oh, yes, yes,” he stammered. “I…um…I’m Doctor James and I just received the results from the x-rays of your…um..employee, Miss Adams. Fortunately, there are no fractures of any sort. Her ribs on the left side are bruised and due to the blunt impact on the right shoulder, Miss Adams most likely received, what we call an AC sprain, which is an incomplete tear of the ligament between the acromion and clavicle,” Doctor James explained, seeing Sam nod in understanding, while Fiona looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Um…it’s painful, but not serious. We’ll give her a sling to immobilize the arm. I gave her a list of range of motion exercises she can do. The sooner she starts with those, the better. She received a prescription for some mild pain medication as well. She can take those as needed.”
“What about her head?” Fiona asked, frowning at the doctor.
“We cleaned the laceration over her eye, but it did not need any stitches. I don’t have the impression she sustained a concussion, but if she has any dizzy spells, nausea and vomiting, I’d like to see her come back here again. And to stay on the safe side, I’d suggest waking her up every two hours to check her level of consciousness.”
“She’ll love that,” Fiona mumbled, remembering Robin’s first reaction when she had woken her up the previous night. It had not been one of delight
“Anyway, the nurse is helping her with the immobilizer right now,” the physician continued cheerfully. “She’ll be ready to go in a minute.”
“Thank you, Doctor James,” Sam smiled, shaking the smaller man’s hand.
“It was my pleasure, Miss Stevens,” he answered, smiling brightly. He gave Fiona a nod, turned around and disappeared behind one of the many doors in the long hallway.
Sam let out a breath. “Well, that’s good news. Nothing broken.”
“Does the tree count?” Fiona joked. “It might not be broken, but I’m sure there’s a dent in it somewhere. That was quite a blow.”
“It’s very comforting to know you’re so concerned with the tree,” a tired, but cool voice sounded behind them.
Fiona mumbled a curse and turned around to face Robin. Why was it that she always managed to either to insult or aggravate the other woman? Unintentionally.
“I didn’t mean it like that, Robin. It was a joke,” Fiona tried to explain, but Robin just weakly raised her left hand and shook her head.
“I’m not in the mood, Fiona. Let’s give it a rest, alright?”
And to Sam’s amazement, Fiona shrugged her shoulders, stuffed her hands in her pockets and stepped aside, waiting for the other two women to head towards the exit. Robin had noticed the darkening of Fiona’s eyes and she was about to apologize, again, but the photographer avoided her eyes intentionally, her face firmly set into a neutral expression.
With a small sigh, Robin followed Sam towards the exit, only wishing for one thing; to be able to lie down and go to sleep. The sooner the better.
Knowing she was in the company of four well-trained police officers, Trishia put her long legs to good use, dashing down the path, the others close behind her. Without saying anything, she jumped off the path into the bushes, wanting nothing more than to capture the person who had been stalking them. She had a lot of questions and was hungry for some answers.
“The pursuer pursued,” she thought grimly, dodging a branch that almost slammed into her face. In front of her, she could hear the tell-tale sound of rustling leaves, snapping branches and running footsteps while the stalker tried to stay out of her reach.
Trishia’s eyes were focused on the area in front of her, where she had seen a flash of a dark-green shirt. Determined to capture the owner of that piece of clothing, She knew she was getting closer, because every now and then her ears picked up a groan or a muttered curse. Obviously, she wasn’t the only one who had trouble keeping her balance.
Running down the hill as fast as she could, Trishia tried not to think about Robin’s fall. It would be so easy to slip and lose her balance. The speed with which she was moving would surely crash her into the first solid obstacle in her way. And that would be really painful.
“This is the police. Stop!” Trishia yelled, avoiding a tree root, by jumping over it, which made her almost slam into a bush.
She came to a skidding halt when all of a sudden the loud sound of snapping branches and a muffled yell reached her ears. Cautiously moving towards the source of the sound, Trishia rounded a few trees. There, in a shallow gully that was created by a small stream, she saw the person in the dark-green shirt lying on his side, gasping for breath. His khaki- colored pants were ripped in several places and Trishia saw a trickle of blood seep through the cotton, just below his knee.
“Police,” she announced again, after taking a deep breath.
The other police officers were standing beside her, their hands on their weapons.
“Put your hands in the air,” Trishia commanded.
“Okay, okay,” a pain- filled voice answered. “Don’t shoot. I’m unarmed, I swear. I only have a Swiss army knife.”
Trishia raised a brow when she heard the youthful voice and cast a questioning look at one of the officers who was standing next to her. He nodded and cautiously stepped closer to the person on the ground.
“Stand up, son,” he advised, not unfriendly.
With difficulty, the figure pushed himself up slowly and, when he finally stood at full length, Trishia’s other brow joined its mate. In front of her stood a young boy who could not be older than twenty. Staring at her with obvious fear, he hardly reached Trishia’s shoulder. Slightly disappointed, she realized their stalker could not be the one who had been captured by Fiona’s camera. He was too slender and not tall enough.
“Who are you?” she asked in a no nonsense tone of voice and the boy swallowed hard.
“K…Kevin Swanson,” he answered, still out of breath.
“What are you doing here, Kevin?”
“I…I can’t really tell you, because…,” he stammered in a hoarse voice.
“Because what?” Trishia asked, suppressing a sigh. Chasing a teenager down a steep hill on her Saturday off was not her idea of a good time. Not if she could spent the day in the company of her partner, who needed her.
“How do I know you’re the police?” the boy asked hesitantly. “Anyone can wear a uniform like that,” he said, pointing at the police officer standing next to him.
Whatever happens, don’t trust anyone!!
The other police officers chuckled and Trishia shook her head. The boy was no fool, she had to give him that.
“Here’s my ID,” she said, opening her wallet and tossing it into his direction. He caught the leather casing and took his time to study her identification. After a little while, he nodded. Just when he was about to hand her back the wallet, a picture fell out and landed on the ground, face down.
The boy mumbled an apology and bent over to pick up the photo. He was about to hand it to Trishia, when his eyes fell on the photo, making him freeze in mid-motion.
His fingers trembled and his brown eyes were wide when he finally handed Trishia her photo of Lucy back.
“You know Fiona,” he whispered.
The soft breeze played with her hair, blowing it away from her face, cooling her skin with a soft touch, but Fiona was not aware of it. She was sitting on the railing of her small veranda, dangling her feet and staring into the distance, completely lost in thought.
When they had come back from the hospital, Robin had asked Sam to drop her off at the apartment, so she could clean herself up, take a painkiller and rest for a while. Sam had objected, saying that somebody needed to keep an eye on her, to make sure she would be alright.
Only when Fiona had, reluctantly, offered to stay as well, so she could keep an eye on the manager, had Sam agreed, secretly pleased with the solution. The house would be too noisy for Robin with a pair of energetic two year olds.
So, Sam had dropped off the two women and had headed up the hill, glad to be home and rest her aching leg.
Fiona sighed and listened to the sound of the shower being turned off. Ever since they had entered the apartment, Robin had hardly said a word. And though Fiona knew the biologist was tired and hurting, it still stung to be ignored. She had wanted to talk to Robin…ask her about the gun she had been carrying and apologize for her earlier behavior. But Robin had not given her the chance. She most likely would take her pain medication and go to sleep and it would be up to Fiona to wake her up every two hours.
“Great, another reason for her to bite my head off,” she sighed, while her eyes followed an airplane, a small silver-colored spec against the clear blue background of the sky. “But why should it bother me anyway? It’s not like I care.”
You know, Fiona McDonnell, I think you are a softie.
“Yeah, right,” Fiona softly snorted, wondering why those words kept playing around in her head. Why had they made such an impression on her?
Because they were true?
“That would certainly defy the opinion a lot of people have about me,” she mumbled, repositioning her tall frame on the narrow railing.
“Fiona?” a soft voice unexpectedly sounded behind her, startling the photographer and almost making her lose her balance. Only her quick reflexes prevented her from tumbling from her seat, sending her off the railing.
“Oh, Robin,” she chuckled after she had regained her balance. “I thought you’d be in bed by now.”
Robin, dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, slowly shook her head and leaned against the doorsill, looking at the dark-haired woman with tired eyes.
“I just wanted something to drink first, maybe some juice. Is that alright?”
“You don’t have to ask me, Robin. Just make yourself at home,” Fiona immediately answered, jumping down and stretching her back. “I’ll get you some. What do you want? Orange, cranberry or grape?”
“You don’t have to…” Robin started to object, but Fiona shook her head and stepped inside the house, passing Robin, carefully avoiding bumping into the other woman.
“I’ll get it. Sit down,” she responded, pointing to a comfortable looking seat in the corner of the veranda.
The warm water of the shower had felt wonderful on her bruised and beaten body, but now Robin felt stiff. The chair looked inviting and Robin’s body ached for a soft spot where she could rest and relax her beat-up muscles. With a soft moan, she let herself down in the thick pillows, wondering how on earth she would be able to get out of the comfortable seat again.
With surprise, she looked around the cozy, partly screened in veranda. A sliding window could close it completely, which was great on chilly winter evenings. The veranda was at the back of the apartment and from the road, or the house up on the hill, it was invisible. The only view was that of the hill that gradually sloped down, to end in a wall of green, where the forest began. It was quiet and peaceful and, judging by the comfortable chair and the telescope in the corner, Robin suspected that Fiona spent a lot of time in the cheerful corner of the veranda.
“I hope you like cranberry,” Fiona’s voice interrupted her musings and Robin nodded, sending Fiona a small smile when she accepted the tall glass that was offered to her. The photographer took her seat on the railing again, one leg pulled up, while the other was dangling freely.
“Thank you,” Robin softly spoke, after taking a sip of the cold juice. “I owe you an apology, Fiona,” she continued. “Again,” she added with a wry smile, casting a quick glance at the photographer’s face, which sported a serious expression.
“No, you don’t owe me anything,” Fiona spoke after a brief silence. “I owe you one. Back on that hill…I acted like a spoiled brat. I’m sorry. I should have more faith in Trishia and Sam. Usually, they know what they’re doing,” she added with a touch of humor.
Robin nibbled on her bottom lip and stared into her glass. She realized Fiona suspected she had been hiding things from her. And she had. But for a reason. Rationally, there was nothing to be ashamed off. But then, why did she feel so guilty about it?
“I’m sorry, though,” Robin continued after a long silence. “I…it…um…it must have been very…awkward for you to…see…”, she hesitated.
“To see you hand Trish a gun?” Fiona calmly added, seeing how Robin was struggling to explain. “It was, awkward, I mean. To say the least.” Fiona let out a sigh and cast a look at Robin, who had her hands clenched around the glass, staring at its contents with a deep frown in her forehead.
“You don’t have to explain, Robin. I’m sure Trishia will tell me all she wants to share. I don’t know what the deep secret is, but I have the distinct feeling Trish is the one in charge here, so, don’t worry about it.”
“But I am worried,” Robin sighed, carefully rubbing her eyes. She was tired and hurting and the only thing she really wanted was to relax and sleep. “I don’t want you to think I…”
What, Robin? Think what? When did Fiona’s opinion become so important to you?
“It’s alright, Robin, don’t worry about it,” Fiona repeated. “I just want to know one thing.”
“Sure. What?” Robin asked with a tired voice.
“How much does Joshua know about all this?”
Startled, Robin looked up, meeting a pair of inquisitive dark-green eyes.
“I see,” Fiona interrupted the biologist. “Maybe it’s time to tell him something. He’s not exactly a kid anymore.”
Fiona slid off the railing and sent Robin a small, weary smile, before heading towards the door.
“I’ve some work to do. I’ll wake you up in about two hours from now, alright?”
Robin, who felt rejected and chided at the same time, could only nod. If Fiona had looked at her, she would have seen the tears welling up in Robin’s eyes. But the photographer had already stepped inside the house, not able to handle the look of defeat on the other woman’s face.
Robin closed her eyes and leaned back into the chair. She was so tired and her whole body ached. Her pain medication was on the kitchen table. She’d only have to get up and walk a few meters to get it. But somehow that distance seemed to be too long and with a small sigh she gave into the craving of her body to rest. Within a minute, the biologist was fast asleep.
“Kevin, my patience is wearing out here. I’m going to ask you again, for the last time, what were you doing here and how do you know Fiona? If you don’t answer me, I’ll have to take you to the police station and leave you there, until you’ re willing to talk,” Trishia said, sending the teenager in front of her a warning look.
They had climbed back up the hill, back to the office where a few police cars were haphazardly parked in front of the small building. Trishia was leaning against one of the cars and stared at the young man they had found down the hill. Kevin Swanson did not seem to be impressed at all and his blue eyes looked at the tall police officer defiantly.
“I can’t tell you, I really can’t,” Kevin answered, a little nervous by the prospect of spending the night at the police station.
“If you can’t tell me, is there anyone else you can talk to?” Trishia asked with more patience than she felt.
Kevin Swanson glanced at the two police officers who were standing close to him, ready to grab him if he decided to make a run for it. Trishia noticed the hesitancy on his face and she slowly nodded.
“Mark, Jason, could you give us a moment, please?” she asked.
“Sure,” Mark answered, shooting Kevin a warning glance, before he turned around and walked to his fellow officers who were quietly talking near the entrance of the office building.
“Don’t try anything foolish, son,” Jason warned, before following Mark. “I’ll keep my eyes on you.”
As soon as they were alone, Trishia stepped a little closer to the teenager. Her eyes took in his slender, almost skinny frame and dirty, torn clothes.
“Where do you live, Kevin?” she asked, not unfriendly, which surprised him, because his blue eyes widened and he looked at her with a mixture of fear and astonishment.
“I…um…nowhere, really,” he stammered.
“Are you from around here?”
“No,” he answered, shaking his head. “I’m from…” he glanced up and Trishia saw the doubt in his eyes.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” he explained.
“Then who are you supposed to talk to? Listen, Kevin, this area is under police investigation and right now, you’re a suspect. I can’t help you, if you don’t talk to me.”
“I’m supposed to talk to someone else. He didn’t mention you.”
“Alright. I’ll leave you with my fellow officers. I suppose we can continue this conversation later then. Probably on Monday.”
“No! Please!” Kevin almost cried out.
“Then talk to me!” Trishia repeated, a bit more forceful this time. “I can’t read minds, Kevin!”
“I was supposed to find Samantha Stevens.”
Trishia’s body went completely still and for a moment she could hear her own heartbeat. Her brain was assaulted by a multitude of possible scenarios and questions, but only one stood out among the rest.
“Tell me,” Trishia interrupted with an impatient gesture. “Tell me, Kevin,” she repeated in a low voice.
“You were there with her,” Kevin softly spoke. “Down the hill, I mean. The tall, blond woman, that was Samantha Stevens, right?”
“Maybe,” Trishia answered slowly.
Kevin Swanson shot her a questioning look, but quickly cast down his eyes when they were met with Trishia’s sharp glance.
“Tell me, Kevin,” she urged again.
“I…I have a message for Samantha Stevens.”
“What does Fiona have to do with that?” Trishia asked sharply, worried for her family. If Kevin or his message had anything to do with the safety of her family and friends, Trishia had to know about it.
“I recognized her. I mean, it’s not her in your picture, but she looks like it.”
“How…do…you…know?” Trishia almost hissed through clenched jaws.
“I saw a drawing,” Kevin explained, unconsciously taking a step back when Trishia leaned forward.
“Where? Who drew it? You’d better start answering me now, Kevin!”
“It’s…I…,” Kevin stammered, feeling very uneasy with Trishia hovering over him. The police woman was very impressive and he decided he did not want to anger her further.
“Is she in danger?” he asked.
“She could be,” Trishia answered, thinking about the shot that had been fired the previous night.
“Alright, alright, I’ll tell you,” Kevin sighed, with slumped shoulders. He felt like he had failed. He had promised to deliver the message to Samantha Stevens, but if this police woman could deliver it for him, he would be content.
“I know Fred,” he started, glancing up and seeing the expression on Trishia’s face change from confusion to recognition.
“How?” Trishia asked sharply.
“We…I was…we were in prison together,” he answered reluctantly. “In Nerang, the Numinbah prison farm. I got out about four months ago. Fred’s still in there. He…um…he’s a good artist, draws a lot of pictures and sometimes he draws portraits too, if people ask him. I…um…he had a picture of Fiona in his cell. He said he drew it from memory.”
Trishia clenched her hands into fists, forcing herself to stay calm and let Kevin finish his story. But the thought of Fiona’s picture hanging in some prisoner’s cell infuriated her.
“What’s the message for Sam?”
“He…Fred…thinks that someone is after her. He didn’t know all the details, but he had a visit from someone, not that long ago, who wanted to know everything he knew about Samantha Stevens.”
“Did he tell him?”
“A little bit,” Kevin answered in a soft voice. “He had to, you know,” he defended his friend. “He…this guy, threatened to hurt Fred’s sister if he didn’t cooperate. Fred only wanted to protect Nancy.”
Oh, my goodness, what a mess! This is getting worse and worse…
“Where is this Nancy now?”
“Safe,” Kevin answered with a hint of a smile. “I tracked her down and brought her to some friends. They’ll keep an eye on her.”
Good, one less worry.
“Who was this person? The one who visited Fred and threatened his sister. Do you know?”
Kevin shook his head and scratched behind his ear, sending Trishia an apologetic look.
“No, I’m sorry. Fred said he never mentioned his name. But he was a fancy looking bloke, Fred said. And cold. He scared Fred sh…he scared the heck out of him,” Kevin added in a mumble.
“Do you have a gun, Kevin?” Trishia asked, seeing Kevin jerk and send her an annoyed look.
“Listen, lady. I did do time in prison and I’m not proud of it. But I don’t do guns, alright? I never have and I never will.”
“Alright, Kevin, I believe you,” Trishia answered, knowing the person who had fired a shot at Fiona and Robin could not have been this slender teenager. “What did land you in jail?”
“I stole a car,” Kevin muttered. “It was stupid, I know. I guess I was temporarily brain dead when I did that.”
“What message did Fred give you for Sam? The exact words, please.”
For the third time in the last five minutes, Fiona cast a look at the clock on her desk. With a resigned shrug of her shoulders, she slowly stood up, wishing she were somewhere else. Somewhere remote, like in the middle of the Simpson desert, photographing lizards. Dust storms and sand drifts suddenly seemed a lot more attractive than facing a grumpy Robin Adams.
“Get your butt in gear, McDonnell, you’ve been putting off the inevitable for fifteen minutes now. You really need to check up on her.”
Fiona raked her fingers through her shoulder-length hair and cast a look in the mirror, immediately pulling a face.
“I knew there was a reason I didn’t want to become a nurse, or doctor. I hate grumpy patients,” she mumbled to her reflection. “Alright, time to show a little bit of that McDonnell courage. Just face the lioness and get on with it.”
With a deep sigh and a feeling like she was being dragged to her own execution, Fiona left the safety of her office and crossed the few meters that separated her from the door to Robin’s bedroom. She knocked politely and waited a few seconds, anticipating a grumpy response. When nothing happened, she knocked again, a little louder this time, almost pressing her ear against the door to make sure she didn’t miss any sound. But there was still no answer and, with a determined look on her face, she opened the door to the small room and stepped inside.
With surprise, she noticed the bed was not occupied. An unexpected feeling of disappointment made itself known, when Fiona realized Robin probably had enough of her childish behavior and had packed up and left.
“I guess I would have done the same thing,” Fiona mumbled, closing the door behind her.
When she entered the kitchen, however, and looked outside the window, she was startled to see Robin still sitting in the big chair, fast asleep.
Fiona smiled and slowly shook her head in disbelief when she stepped outside and looked down at the curly-haired woman, who was oblivious to her surroundings.
“Sleeping like a baby,” she mumbled. “And she doesn’t even know this chair reclines. Poor thing.”
Fiona put a hand on Robin’s shoulder and gently squeezed, intrigued by the relaxed expression on the biologist’s face. In spite of the cut across her eyebrow and the lump on her forehead, Robin looked years younger and Fiona suddenly realized laughing had the same effect on the other woman. Strange she had not noticed that before.
“Robin,” she spoke softly. “Robin, you have to wake up for a moment.”
The only response was an unintelligent mumbling and Fiona chuckled. But the smile froze on her face, when, all of a sudden her hand was grasped and pressed against Robin’s cheek, while the biologist let out a sigh of contentment.
“Oh, boy,” Fiona muttered, feeling a blush rise to her cheeks. Things were not going as planned and if Robin would wake up in that situation, she would probably be a lot more than grumpy.
Slowly, but determinedly Fiona started to draw back her hand, only to find it firmly clasped in Robin’s grip.
“No, not yet, Abby,” Robin mumbled in her sleep and Fiona’s eyebrows rose into her hairline.
“Abby?” she mouthed with surprise, not knowing whether to laugh or to be annoyed.
Suddenly, Doctor James’ warning about concussions and confusion came back to mind and this time she shook Robin a little more forcefully.
“Come on, Robin, wake up!” Fiona urged. “You need to wake up, alright?”
With relief, Fiona noticed the fluttering of dark eyelashes and a few seconds later a pair of sleepy eyes glanced up at her.
“Hi,” Fiona smiled, still uncomfortably aware of the position of her hand. “I’m sorry to wake you up, but um…doctor’s orders. Remember?”
“Yes, I remember,” Robin answered in a hoarse voice. “I…”
Her face became red when she realized she was pressing Fiona’s hand against her cheek. As if burnt, she let go, mumbling an apology.
“Don’t worry about it,” Fiona shrugged, wondering who Abby was and why she was so annoyed with her. “Happens to me all the time,” she joked, kneeling down next to the chair and casting an inquisitive look at the biologist’s face.
“How are you doing?”
“Okay, I guess,” Robin answered, not daring to look up. She felt very vulnerable and knew she could not handle the mocking in Fiona’s eyes.
“Look at me,” Fiona softly urged, wanting to check Robin’s pupils, as Sam had told her to do. “Please?”
Robin could not ignore the gentle plea and when she did look up, she was touched by the gaze of a pair of compassionate dark-green eyes. There was no mockery and she slowly relaxed.
“Your pupils seem to be alright,” Fiona said, covering Robin’s right eye for a moment and intently studying the pupil when she removed her hand. She did the same thing to the left eye and smiled when the light made the pupil constrict immediately.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Yes, your place,” Robin answered, finding Fiona’s serious examination endearing.
“And who am I?”
“Oh, let me think,” Robin sighed, leaning back into the pillow and closing her eyes. “Somehow I think…aren’t you this whiz-kid? The twenty-one year old with a degree in software engineering and a talent for wildlife photography?”
“I want to hear a name,” Fiona smiled, pleasantly surprised by Robin’s relaxed attitude. The woman was not grumpy at all.
Must have had a great dream, Fiona mentally sighed.
“A name, huh?” Robin slowly repeated, eyes still closed. “Let me think.”
If I’d try, I bet I could come up with a few interesting names…Better not go there, Adams!
“Something Scottish, if I’m not mistaken,” Robin smiled, opening her eyes and casting a glance at Fiona, who was looking at her with patient amusement. “McDonnell, I think. Fiona McDonnell.”
“Good, I guess your brain is still intact,” Fiona chuckled.
“It needs more than a collision with a tree to get shaken up,” Robin mumbled. “I’m too hardheaded.”
“Somehow I believe that,” Fiona quipped with a grin. “Alright, since you’re in possession of all your faculties, I think I can let you go back to sleep again. Do you want to stay here?”
“It’s a comfy chair,” Robin sighed. “But I think my body would be very pleased if it could get some horizontal rest. I didn’t mean to fall asleep in this chair.”
“It reclines,”Fiona answered, reaching out and pulling a lever, to prove her point.
“Ooh, it does,” Robin smiled in delight. “Do you mind if I stay here for a little while longer?”
“Of course not,” Fiona answered, getting back to her feet. “Go back to sleep. Next time I’ll wake you, I’ll have some tea and something to eat, alright?”
“Sounds good to me,” Robin mumbled with her eyes closed. “Thank you, Fiona.”
“No worries,” the photographer replied softly. “Have a good rest.”
A long time after Robin had fallen asleep again, Fiona just stood there, leaning her back against the railing, studying the peacefully sleeping woman intently, as if the worry-free face, relaxed in sleep, provided an answer to questions she had never pondered over before.
Jody’s eyes were soft and full of tenderness when she looked down at her dozing partner. After Sam had come home, she had talked to Joshua, telling him about Robin’s fall and persuading the teenager to stay at the house and let his sister sleep for a few hours.
Leaving the twins in the loving care of Alice, Yarra and Lucy, Jody had accompanied Sam to their Jacuzzi and massaged her aching right leg until the tall blonde had fallen asleep in the warm, softly bubbling water.
“Sam, honey, wake up,” Jody spoke after she had let her lover sleep for a while. “You’re turning into a prune.”
A pair of sleepy blue eyes glanced up at her and, as so many countless times before, Jody simply melted in the gaze, feeling herself pulled towards her partner by an invisible, but immensely strong force.
“Kiss me,” Sam whispered and Jody swallowed hard.
“Always,” she answered, before her lips met Sam’s.
Losing themselves in the soft touches and warm, deep kisses, both women took their time, until, after some breathless moments, Jody’s brain registered the goose bumps that had erupted all over Sam’s skin.
Gently rubbing a cool shoulder she kissed Sam’s cheek and glanced down at her partner with a questioning look.
“Honey, you feel cold.”
“I do?” Sam sighed. “Weird. I feel quite warm actually.”
“Your skin is cold,” Jody smiled.
“Yes, but your kisses are hot,” Sam winked. “My theory is that we can heat me up by just continuing what we were doing. Don’t you think so?”
“Probably,” Jody chuckled, amused by the mischievous glance in Sam’s eyes. “But I can think of a better, more comfortable and drier place to…continue this conversation.”
“Drier?” Sam asked innocently, one eyebrow raised.
“You’re bad,” Jody scolded, playfully splashing her lover with water.
“No, I’m not, really,” Sam sighed. “If I’d be bad, I would pull you in this tub and have my way with you.”
“Maybe later,” Jody promised with a smile. “Right now you’re pruning, our guests are patiently waiting for us to emerge again, and Lucy is worried out of her mind, because Trish isn’t back yet.”
“Woman, you just killed the mood,” Sam pouted, but her eyes were twinkling and, without warning, she suddenly raised her tall frame, letting the water cascade down her body.
Suppressing a smug smile, Sam noticed how Jody’s eyes traveled up and down her body, while she unconsciously moistened her lips.
“See anything you like?” Sam purred.
“Oh, yes,” Jody breathed, blindly reaching for a huge, fluffy towel behind her. “Later, Jody, later,” she mumbled, making Sam laugh.
“Poor baby,” Sam teased, dropping a kiss on the top of Jody’s head. “That wasn’t a fair move on my part.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Jody nodded. “But I’ll have my revenge later.”
“Ooh, I can’t wait,” Sam chuckled.
“Right now, you need to dry off, while I try to cool off,” Jody muttered, getting up and walking towards the sink, so she could splash her face with cold water.
“I’m sorry, Jody,” Sam spoke, but she laughed when she met her partner’s indignant green eyes in the mirror.
“No, you’ re not,” Jody answered, and she smiled. “And I’m not, either. The only thing I’m sorry for is not being able to give into my, what does Fiona call it? Primal urges?”
Sam chuckled, clearly remembering the look of dismay on her sister-in-law’s face when she had spoken those words.
“Anyway, there’s always the anticipation about things to come. Right?” Jody continued, drying her freckled face with Sam’s towel.
“Right,” Sam nodded with a smile.
Jody reached up to pull Sam’s face down and gave her an unexpected, slow, deep kiss.
“Anticipate!” she whispered, before releasing her partner and walking towards the door. Before she left the bathroom though, she turned around and gave Sam a saucy wink, laughing heartily when her partner whimpered softly.
“I’ll make you some fresh coffee,” she promised. “Strong coffee,” she added with a laugh, before disappearing and softly closing the door behind her.
“Very strong coffee,” Sam whispered, with a dazed look in her clear blue eyes.
Fiona stared at the words on the screen in front of her, without seeing much. The black and white had faded into a blur, while her mind went over all that happened in the past day.
Had it only been just one day? It seemed so much longer and yet, it had only been twenty-four hours since she had started her drive up the mountain.
“Yesterday, my life was organized and…safe,” she mused. “Right now it seems total chaos and I feel like I’m rapidly…helplessly… drifting away from shore. Why is that?”
A pair of pensive, dark-green eyes unconsciously traveled to the door of the small studio. Fiona had left it open, so she could hear Robin, in case the other woman should need her for something…anything.
With a sigh, Fiona leaned back in her chair, disgusted by her lack of concentration. Usually, when she was working, or studying, she was able to block out the rest of the world and completely focus on her tasks.
“I must be going nuts,” she mumbled. “Maybe that situation with Martin Coles has made more of an impact on me than I realized. Maybe I’m just shaken up a little by what happened last night.”
Sure. And don’t forget the intriguing puzzle called Robin Adams.
“Shut up,” Fiona muttered, annoyed with the little voice in the back of her mind. “You picked a great time to visit.”
“Excuse me?” a hesitant voice sounded from the doorway, startling Fiona, who immediately jumped up from her chair to face Robin, who was looking at her with obvious confusion.
“Oh, I…um…I was talking to myself,” Fiona stammered.
“Telling yourself to shut up?” Robin asked, with a hint of humor in her voice.
“Somebody has to do that,” Fiona responded with a sheepish grin. “Usually, I’m very obedient to myself.”
With a small frown, the photographer studied the woman in front of her, not liking what she saw. There were dark circles underneath the biologist’s eyes and one look at the way the woman was clutching her arm in front of her body told Fiona she had to be in pain.
“Did you ever take those pain pills the doctor gave you?” she asked in a stern voice, which caused Robin to look at her in surprise. Fiona in nursing mode. That could be interesting.
“No, not yet,” Robin admitted, shrugging her shoulders and immediately wincing in pain.
“Don’t you think you should?”
Robin managed to swallow a;’Yes, mom’, and just nodded, trying not to look guilty.
“I fell asleep before I could take them,” she defended herself. “But I guess you’re right, I’d better take one. It might make me feel a little better.”
“I’m sure it will. I’ll make us something to eat.”
“Oh, you don’t have to, Fiona. Really. You’ re working and I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I’ll be fine,” Robin objected hastily.
“It’s no trouble at all,” Fiona responded, already walking towards the kitchen. “Besides, I’m a little hungry myself,” she lied. Her stomach had been tied in knots all morning and thinking about food almost made her nauseous.
“I make a killer ham-cheese sandwich,” she called over her shoulder. “Would you like one?”
“Um…yes, sure. Thank you,” Robin answered, following the photographer into the small kitchen.
Leaning against the kitchen table, Robin watched as Fiona prepared sandwiches, which she placed on two plates, making sure to neatly cut Robin’s in four equal parts. Robin looked on in amazement, wondering why Fiona kept surprising her with her thoughtfulness. Maybe it was the discrepancy between the way the photographer tried to present herself and the way she really was. True, Fiona could be very aloof and cynical, but the more time Robin spent with the younger woman, the clearer it became that, deep down inside, Fiona McDonnell was a warm, kind and compassionate person.
But why would she want to hide that? It’s not like it’s a bad thing. Mmm…interesting.
“Do you want to sit here, or would you rather go outside?” Fiona asked quietly.
“Right here is fine,” Robin answered softly. “It’s getting a little warm outside.”
“I know,” Fiona nodded, placing the plates on the kitchen table and gesturing for Robin to take a seat. “I don’t have the nice breeze my neighbors on top of the hill are able to enjoy.”
“They have a gorgeous house and the view is simply breathtaking,” Robin answered, genuinely impressed with Sam and Jody’s house.
“Wait till you see it on a clear night. No wonder those two love stargazing, they have front row seats,” Fiona chuckled, not aware of the warm affection in her voice.
“Seems to me you share that passion,” Robin remarked, pointing at a photo on the wall. It was a beautiful picture of the Southern Cross, against the pitch-black darkness of the night sky. “Your work?”
“Yeah, one of the many,” Fiona shrugged. “It’s not all that great, really,” she said, glancing at the photo with a critical eye. “I took it a few years ago. Right now, I’ve a much better camera and a sturdier tripod.”
“It’s still beautiful,” Robin remarked, taking a bite from her sandwich. “I’d love to see more of your work.”
Fiona smiled and took a sip of her tea. Robin’s voice had sounded genuine, which secretly pleased her.
“I might show you. If you’re good,” she gently teased.
“I’m sure I can be. At least for a few hours,” Robin quipped, warmed by Fiona’s smile.
“So, what do you like best? Nature or people?”
“Aren’t people part of nature?” Fiona asked with innocent eyes.
“Duh! You know what I mean,” Robin chuckled. “Do you prefer to take pictures of people, or do you prefer…nature.”
“Nature,” was Fiona’s immediate answer and Robin suppressed a smile.
Oh, boy. I should have seen that one coming! Don’t let that sweet smile fool you, McDonnell, remember, she’s a psychologist wannabee.
“People are complicated creatures and they are not always what they…portray. While nature is honest and straightforward. It’s either beautiful or ugly, harsh or tender. It can be merciless or soothing for the soul. Whatever it is, it doesn’t lie. It’s just the way it is. No lies or false pretenses. No hidden agenda. What you see is what you get,” Fiona answered in a calm voice, while her eyes stared at the star-filled picture on the wall. “It’s pure and simple.”
Photographer. Software-engineer and philosopher. Fiona McDonnell, you keep surprising me with your depth.
“Have you always felt that way?” Robin asked curiously, aware of the brief flash of trepidation in Fiona’s eyes, before they were cast down.
“It’s my life experience,” Fiona answered reluctantly. She really did not want to give Robin Adams too much insight into her psyche, but something, deep down inside made her want to answer the questions anyway. It was frightening and confusing and Fiona decided she didn’t like those feelings at all.
Robin studied the changing expressions on the photographer’s face, curious to find out what the other woman was thinking. Fiona McDonnell could be extremely annoying at times, but she was also very intriguing and Robin was looking forward to learning more about the younger woman.
“You seem kind of young, to have experienced such…deep disappointments in other people,” she spoke softly, taking a bite from her sandwich that tasted surprisingly good.
“I had to grow up fast,” Fiona answered quickly, already regretting the words as soon as they had left her lips.
Robin’s hazel eyes took in the faraway look on Fiona’s face. The dark-green eyes stared at the plate in front of her and it was obvious the photographer was deep in thought. It gave Robin the chance to lean back and watch with interest how the muscles in Fiona’s jaws clenched and relaxed, as if she was grinding her teeth. The long dark lashes were hiding the eyes from view, while they almost touched the freckled skin of her cheeks.
I bet she has no idea how beautiful she is, Robin mused. But then, I don’t think Fiona McDonnell is as self-assured as she wants the world to believe.
“I’m sorry if I stirred up some bad memories,” Robin apologized after a long silence. “I didn’t mean to do that.”
Fiona slowly nodded and took a sip of her tea, before looking up and meeting Robin’s eyes again.
“That’s alright. It’s not my habit to dwell on the bad ones.. What’s done is done, nothing can or will ever change that.”
“Well, that’s true,” Robin replied. “But that doesn’t mean that, every now and then, we don’t wish we could go back and change things.”
“Do you?” Fiona immediately asked, glad to focus the attention on Robin and not herself. “Want to go back and change things, I mean?”
When Robin slowly nodded, Fiona leaned back in her chair and shot the older woman a curious look.
“If you could change one thing, what would it be?” she asked.
Robin took her mug of steaming tea and carefully sipped the hot beverage, while her eyes stared at Fiona over the rim of her cup. Again, the photographer had managed to turn the tables on her, and inwardly she smiled. Maybe by sharing some of her past, she would be able to win Fiona’s trust.
“I’d beg my parents to stay home, that one, rainy morning, four years ago,” Robin answered softly, not able to meet Fiona’s eyes. It still hurt, even after all those years.
“What happened?” Fiona asked quietly, already suspecting the answer.
“Their car skidded out of control. Hydroplaning, probably,” Robin cleared her throat and took another sip of the tea, which was soothing to her suddenly constricting throat. “They…the car went off the road and plunged down a cliff. According to the police, they must have died instantly. Joshua was thrown out of the car and, miraculously, survived. He was in a coma for almost a week and to this day, he can’t remember a thing about the accident.”
There was a brief silence, in which Robin slowly drank her tea, swallowing away the lump in her throat, while Fiona looked at her with eyes full of compassion and understanding. Robin looked a little lost and sad and Fiona had to fight the urge to get up and give the older woman a friendly hug, which was utterly confusing since she usually reserved those displays of affection for dear friends and family only.
“I’m sorry you and Joshua had to go through that,” she finally spoke. “That must have been very hard.”
“It was,” Robin nodded with a sad smile. “It was horrible. Thank God I still have my brother, though. I’m very grateful for that.”
Robin took a deep, cleansing breath and shot Fiona a questioning look.
“Your turn,” she smiled. “What would you change?”
To Robin’s surprise, Fiona did not have to think long. Her voice was low, but calm when she answered.
“I’d make sure my father wouldn’t stop loving Jody.”
Fiona’s answer was so unexpected, honest and deeply personal, Robin was almost shocked into silence. Those few, softly spoken words, revealed so much about the woman who was sitting in front of her at the the kitchen table. It was like she had been granted a peek into a carefully shielded heart, to be blinded by the sudden revelation.
Jody. Fiona’s ‘weak’ spot.
“I…it must be very hard to…have experienced that,” Robin answered slowly, carefully choosing her words. “Parents are always supposed to love and support their children, at least, that’s what we always expect them to do.”
“Sometimes expectations are overrated,” Fiona remarked, not able to hide the hint of bitterness in her voice. “Things are not always what they seem.”
“I guess not,” Robin replied. “Do you…do you mind if I ask you what happened?”
A pair of dark-green eyes looked up and Robin unconsciously held her breath when they bore deep into her own. It was like Fiona was trying to look straight through her and Robin could have sworn that, for a moment, she managed to do just that. Deep down inside she knew that, if Fiona would trust her enough to share this apparently difficult part of her past, something between them would change forever. Instinctively, Robin knew that Fiona McDonnell was not a person who easily confided in other people, let alone trusted them. And she wondered if the photographer would grant her that trust, especially after what had happened that morning.
“No, I don’t mind,” Fiona finally answered softly. “It’s not exactly a highlight in McDonnell history though,” she added with a wry smile. “I guess I need to go back about fifteen years. I…”
A loud knock on the door interrupted Fiona’s words and with a slightly annoyed frown, the photographer got up from her chair, sending Robin an apologetic look. With a few long strides, she walked to the door, expecting to find Joshua inquiring about his sister. To her surprise, she saw Trishia, who had stopped the police car she was driving in front of the little house, with the engine still running.
“What’s up?” Fiona frowned, noticing how tense Trishia seemed to be.
“Is Robin awake?”
“Yes, she is. But…”
“I want you and Robin to come up to the house. I need to talk to the whole family,” Trishia answered quickly. “I can take you up, so you don’t have to walk.”
“Sounds like this is going to be a fun day.” Fiona sighed, raking her fingers through her hair. “I’ll ask Robin and see what she…”
“It’s alright, Fiona,” a soft voice sounded behind her and when the photographer half-turned, she looked straight into a pair of troubled hazel eyes. “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Fiona frowned, noticing how pale Robin was. “Did you take your pain pill?”
“Yes, I did,” Robin couldn’t help smiling.
“Great,” Trishia spoke, already walking back to the car. “Let’s go then. We have no time to lose.”
“He what?” Lucy almost spat, pushing her chair back and jumping up, her dark-green eyes were almost black with anger. “You’ re joking, right?”
“No, I’m not,” Trishia answered calmly, walking up to her partner and gently pushing her back into her chair. She understood Lucy’s reaction. She had been upset as well when Kevin Swanson had told her about Fiona’s portrait hanging in a prison cell.
Trishia’s eyes took in all the different facial expressions of the women and Joshua, sitting around the huge kitchen table. They all showed various degrees of shock and concern, except Fiona, who stared at Trishia with a mixture of surprise and amusement.
“You mean, I’m famous in….certain circles?” she joked, trying to break the, almost, palpable tension in the room.
“It’s not funny, Fiona,” Lucy scolded, sending her youngest sister an angry glare.
Fiona just shrugged her shoulders and cast a look at Jody, who stared back at her with pensive eyes. She could tell her eldest sister was deeply worried. It was the small frown lines on her forehead and the slight pursing of her lips that gave it away. But Jody did not share Lucy’s temperament and she sat in silence, pondering over Trishia’s words. Lucy nibbled her bottom lip, wanting to jump up and pace, but she was being restrained by her lover’s hand on her shoulder.
“You know, we’ re talking about Fred here,” Fiona continued. “I don’t have to remind you that he was the one who really didn’t want to fry us in Sarah’s and Megan’s house. He even gave you Sarah’s gun. Remember, Sam?”
Sam slowly nodded and involuntarily her hand searched Jody’s, needing the contact to keep the bad memories at bay. Nobody had been seriously hurt that day, but the idea of what could have happened had given Sam nightmares.
“You’ve always defended that little criminal,” Lucy accused her youngest sister with a deep sigh. “Why’s that?”
“Because he wasn’t such a bad person,” Fiona answered with a hint of impatience in her voice, deliberately avoiding a pair of curious hazel eyes that stared at her from across the table. “He was just a poor kid, who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and met the wrong people. Probably not in that order.”
Fiona’s gaze traveled to Alice and when their eyes met, they both smiled. Alice had been lucky when she had met Joan McDonnell, which had eventually led to her meeting Jody and Sam. Alice had often declared that the couple had saved her life in more than one way. They had taken her in and had offered her a home and a new family. But Alice knew from experience that living on the streets was all about survival. At times, she had been tempted to associate with people who promised her food and money, in exchange for dubious ‘favors’. Who knows what would have become of her had she not met the McDonnells ?
“I still don’t like the idea of him having your picture up on his wall,” Lucy mumbled, rubbing her forehead. She was tired and could feel the beginning of a headache. It made her grumpy, something she hated, which made her feel even worse.
“I just hope it’s a good picture,” Fiona nodded.”He’d better have put the freckles in, otherwise I’m way too much like you.”
In spite of everything, Lucy chuckled and she sent Fiona a grateful look. Leave it up to her kid sister to make her feel better.
“Don’t worry about it,” Trishia spoke in a calm voice. “That picture won’t be there much longer. But I didn’t call you all together here to talk about Fred’s artistic abilities. We’ ve some serious things to discuss. Apparently there’s somebody who will go to great lengths to harm Sam’s business. I take the threats Kevin Swanson told me about seriously, on a personal level.”
Trishia’s green-blue eyes traveled to Robin and for a brief moment the two women seemed to have a wordless conversation.
“First of all, I feel the need to clarify a few things,” Trishia sighed, pushing away a strand of hair from her forehead.
“Yes, please,” Fiona’s voice sounded, laced with a hint of humor. “I meant to ask you a few things and I feel this will be very enlightening. So please, go ahead.”
“I will, if you promise to keep quiet. At least, until I’m done.” Trishia remarked with an exasperated look in Fiona’s direction.
“Sure,” Fiona nodded with a crooked smile. “Go ahead, Senior-Sergeant. I’m all ears.”
Fiona leaned back into her chair, stretching her legs under the table and casually crossing her ankles. The expression in her eyes seemed to be bored, almost sleepy, but Trishia knew from experience that Fiona was in full listening mode and would hear and register every single word she would say. Trishia reached out for her glass of water and took a few cool sips. She needed to choose her words carefully.
” Alright,” she finally started with a sigh, leaning her hands on the back of Lucy’s chair. “To make sense, I need to go back a few years. So bear with me. After the…episode… with The Reef’s former manager, William Jenkins, and all the things that happened during that time, we were never really able to figure out if there had been somebody else behind the whole thing, an even bigger brain, so to speak.” Trishia sent Fiona, who was about to open her mouth, a warning glance. “We tried to connect the dots we had, but somehow there were a few leads that we could never cash in on.”
Trishia rubbed her forehead and sent Robin a quick glance. The biologist looked pale and tired and Trishia could tell by the way she was plucking at the hem of her t-shirt, the woman was nervous. Her eyes kept darting between Trishia and Fiona and mentally the police woman sighed. Considering Fiona’s reaction of that morning, she wondered how the photographer would react to what Trishia was about to tell them.
“About three months ago, Sam put an advertisement in the paper, asking for somebody who could run the new property she had recently purchased. Robin turned out to be the most suitable candidate and Sam put in a request for a routine background check. By pure coincidence, the form landed on my desk and I decided to do the check myself, since I knew Sam wanted to get on with the resort. I recognized Robin’s name.”
Trishia gently squeezed Lucy’s shoulder, remembering how her partner had grilled her after they had come home the previous night. Somehow Lucy had known Trishia and Robin had met before and Trishia’s explanation that she could not yet reveal that information had been hard on Lucy. But the dark-haired woman trusted her partner and even though she was bursting with curiosity, she had merely nodded, determined to wait until her lover was able to tell her more.
“About six, seven years ago, I worked as an instructor at the shooting range. It was my job to make sure our rookies were able to use a weapon,” Trishia paused and cast a look at Robin, who glanced up at her and slowly nodded.
“Robin was one of the rookies,” she calmly added, registering the surprise in Fiona’s eyes.
Trishia knew she was not telling either Sam or Jody anything they did not know already. The couple sat close together, with Sam’s arm firmly wrapped around the smaller woman’s shoulder. Their eyes studied the faces around the table and Trishia noticed how Jody and Alice shared a knowing smile, while Yarra’s eyes were full of respect when they looked at Robin.
“You were a police…person?” Fiona could not restrain herself from responding, looking at Robin with barely veiled disappointment. If Robin and Trishia would have told her that before, she would have readily accepted it. Why the secrecy?
“Not really,” Robin answered softly, feeling Joshua’s arm protectively settle around her shoulders. “I planned to become one, like our dad was, but I never finished my training.”
“What happened?” Alice asked gently. Something about Robin struck a cord and even though she hardly knew the biologist, she already did like her. The woman seemed a little lost, but Alice knew that if there was a family who could remedy that, it would be the McDonnells.
“My mother had a younger brother who…wasn’t exactly an honest, taxpaying civilian. He…” Robin cleared her throat and took a sip of her coffee. “Apparently, he didn’t like the fact that there would be another police officer in the family, so he did his best to slander my dad’s name, accusing him of accepting bribes. It was a clever set- up. There was an investigation and even though nothing could be proved, my dad was advised to resign. I couldn’t handle the pressure, so I quit,” Robin ended in a quiet voice.
“That’s horrible, Robin,” Yarra spoke, her voice filled with sympathy.
“It was,” she nodded. “Our dad deserved better than that. Much better.”
“I guess that explains your gun and all that,” Fiona responded, while her eyes traveled from Robin to Trishia and back again. “But I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Right?”
“Right,” Trishia answered calmly. “Because a few weeks before Robin applied for the job, I had talked to her at the police station.”
Fiona’s eyes, glued to Trishia’s face, were keen when she pushed herself upright in her chair.
“Go on,” she drawled, wondering what Trishia would have to say, but Trishia looked at Robin and sent her an encouraging smile.
“Our parents died in a car accident,” Robin’s husky voice filled the silence. “It took me a while to muster up the courage to go through their personal belongings in order to sort them out. When I finally did, about, I don’t know, five, six months ago, I was going through my father’s personal correspondence, when I came across a letter he once received from my…uncle. It was after he had to resign as a police officer. I read the letter and at first didn’t know what to think of it, let alone what to do with it. After talking it over with Josh, we decided to contact the police.”
“So I received a phone call from the station down in Burleigh Heads, telling me they had something that would interest me,” Trishia continued. “A letter in which Jeffrey Adams was offered a nice sum of money if he would share some sensitive police information with his brother-in-law. There weren’t a lot of specifics in the letter, but two things stood out. He mentioned The Reef. And, to my surprise, a name. I can’t share any information about that yet, because we’ re still following some leads, but it looks interesting.”
“The Reef?” Lucy frowned, craning her neck to look up at her partner who was still standing behind her chair. “But…what happened?” Lucy turned back to face Robin and looked at the younger woman with a puzzled expression on her face. “I’m sure your dad didn’t…”
“No, he didn’t,” Joshua answered quickly, eager to make known his father had nothing to do with what had happened a few years ago.
“Then, what did happen?” Yarra asked slowly.
Robin swallowed hard and her hand searched Joshua’s for support. It immediately disappeared between his larger ones, while he gave it an encouraging squeeze.
“I remember my dad having a huge argument with my uncle,” Robin spoke quietly. “I remember him saying that, out of respect for my mother, he’d give my uncle a week to clean up his act. Three days later, our parents died in a car crash.”
Looking at Robin and Joshua, Fiona noticed the pain on their faces and she cast down her eyes, swallowing hard and taking a deep breath to try and control her own raging emotions.
“I’m sure that wasn’t a coincidence,” she said, looking at Trishia with blazing dark-green eyes. She knew it wasn’t the police woman’s fault, but Robin’s story angered her. It was all so tragic and unfair. The look on Robin’s and Joshua’s faces made her want to lash out at the one who had been responsible for their pain.
“We’ re looking into that, Fi,” Trishia answered softly. “Believe me, we’re going over every little detail.”
“But if Robin’s…uncle… was involved in all of this, what happened to him? I remember wannabee criminal Fred and the big ape. But I…” Fiona’s paused and while her eyes went wide, all blood drained from her face, leaving her pale and cold.
“Tell me it isn’t true,” she almost whispered, her eyes pleading when they bore into Trishia’s. But the tall police woman pursed her lips and slowly nodded.
“That…that…bastard… Joe Michaels, the one who tried to kill Sam and Megan, is Robin’s uncle? You’ re freaking kidding me!”
“I’m afraid it’s true, Fiona,” Robin answered with audible distress. “I’m sorry.”
“And the two of you knew?” she asked Sam, who didn’t avoid Fiona’s eyes, but nodded calmly.
Fiona took a deep breath and pushed back her chair. She jumped up and walked to the door.
“I need some fresh air,” her voice croaked, before she stepped outside and closed the door behind her, leaving the rest in shocked silence. It wasn’t often Fiona McDonnell was upset and, on those rare occasions, she hardly ever showed it. Her emotional display had left the women in the kitchen in stunned silence.
It took her a few moments to compose herself, but when she did, Sam started to rise up from her chair to follow Fiona outside. A small, but strong hand on her arm stopped her.
“No, Sam, I’ll go,” Jody spoke, giving Sam’s arm a gentle but determined pull. The tall blonde obediently sank back in her chair, while Jody stood up. She sent Robin a small smile, before she turned to Trishia to give her an encouraging nod.
“Just continue, Trish. We’ ll be back…eventually,” she added with a trace of humor.
Seven pairs of eyes followed Jody when she walked towards the door and disappeared out on the veranda. It remained silent for a long time.
Fiona stared in the distance, her foot kicking the trunk of a tree that had been struck by lightning a long time ago and had eventually crashed to the ground. A silent example of Mother Nature’s fury.
Fiona didn’t enjoy the beautiful view, nor did she hear the happy sound of a nearby songbird. Her mind was trying very hard to make sense of the turmoil inside of her. She realized she had lost her composure and for some reason that was very disturbing to her. She never let her guard down like that. What was wrong with her?
With a deep sigh, Fiona threw her head back and looked at the sky. Some heavy clouds were massing together. A tell-tale sign of a storm brewing.
“How appropriate,” she mumbled, before casting down her eyes again and staring at a little beetle that was doing its best to crawl into a little hole that seemed to be too small for him. But in the end he did it and Fiona chuckled when she realized the poor little bug would not have made it if Taryn had been around.
The sounds of footsteps through dry grass alerted Fiona that somebody was approaching. But she didn’t have to look up to know who it was.
“You always know where to find me, don’t you, sis?” she asked, the affection clearly audible in her soft voice.
“Sure I do,” Jody answered, wrapping an arm around Fiona’s waist and giving her a loving squeeze. “You’re my baby-sister. I know more about you than you think.”
“You do, huh?” Fiona smiled, while she wrapped her arm around Jody’s shoulders. Somehow she needed the contact and after a few moments she knew why. Jody grounded her in a way nobody else could. It had always been that way and Fiona could not help wondering if that would ever change. She secretly hoped it wouldn’t.
“I’ve acted like an idiot,” Fiona sighed with regret. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to be the disruptive element…again.”
“What happened, Fi?” Jody asked, ignoring Fiona’s self-loathing.
“You were there, Pea, you know what happened,” Fiona answered.
“I know the facts,” Jody smiled at her sister’s attempt to rationalize. “But I want to know what made you…react the way you did.”
“It sure wasn’t my usual uncaring self,” Fiona replied, with a faint trace of bitterness in her voice.
“Is that how you perceive yourself? Uncaring?” Jody asked in a serious tone. “Your family and friends know better than that, sweetie.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Fiona sighed, raking her fingers through her hair. “I must be tired after everything that happened yesterday. I didn’t get much sleep.”
Inwardly, Jody sighed. Fiona was rationalizing again.
“I know you didn’t, but I’ve seen you go without sleep before, Fi. What makes it different this time?”
“You little terrier,” Fiona smiled, playfully shaking her sister. “You’re not giving up, are you?”
“What’s going on, Fi?” Jody repeated softly. She reached out a hand and tapped against Fiona’s chest. “In here. What’s going on in here?”
“I’m sure you’ re not referring to the biological and physical aspects of my circulation,” Fiona answered with a sad smile. “How do you know there is something?”
“I know you better than you think I do, little sister. You’ re not yourself. Your eyes are stormy, you’re not as quick- witted as usual and you seem a little lost to me. Inside that pretty head of yours, you’re probably turning around in circles, not knowing where to go, or what to do.”
For a long time, Fiona stared at the ground, as if the grass that surrounded the blackened, dead tree could give her the answers she was looking for. When she finally raised her head, the expression on her face was open and vulnerable and Jody let out a small sigh of relief. Fiona was about to let her in.
“I’m…confused,” the photographer started in a soft voice. “I’ve tried to figure out why and what caused it, but the funny thing is, I’m confused about the confusion. I don’t know what’s happening with me, Jody, but I just don’t feel like myself. Maybe it was the fact that somebody shot at…us…last night. Maybe all the work I’ve been doing lately is finally catching up with me and I’m in desperate need of some time off. Maybe it’s this whole situation we’ re all in again. Maybe it’s a combination of it all.” Fiona let out a short laugh and shrugged er shoulders. “And maybe I’m simply coming down with something. Fiona McDonnell, brought down by the flu.”
“You’ re leaving out an important factor,” Jody spoke gently. When she heard her sister’s soft gasp of surprise, she knew she was right. Something that was both exhilarating and frightening.
“I am ?” Fiona asked with an hardly audible quiver in her voice.
“Yes, you are, sweetie. I don’t want to force you to talk about things you’ re not ready for yet, but, am I right when I include Robin in the list of ‘maybe’s’?”
“Yes,” Fiona breathed, squeezing her eyes shut to fight the tears that were threatening to emerge. “It’s so…so…stupid, really, Jody. I don’t know what to think about her. One moment I really….like…her, while the next moment I’m ready to throttle her. I’ve never felt so out of control. I mean, this morning, just before Trish came to pick us up, I told her stuff I’d never told anyone before. It’s annoying the heck out of me. Why am I doing that?”
“You really want an answer to that question?” Jody asked gently.
“I do,” Fiona nodded. “But I also know I’m the one who’ll have to come up with it. This is my journey through the circus of emotions. And I can tell you, Pea, I don’t like it at all.”
Jody smiled and rubbed Fiona’s back in comforting, slow circles. Ever since her sister had been a baby, it had calmed her down when she was upset.
“I know, honey, I can tell by just looking at you. But you know what? In spite of your struggles, I’m glad you’ re experiencing them. It will make you more complete, trust me.”
“I don’t know about that,” Fiona sighed. “It feels like pulling teeth and when that happens, you’ re losing something. Right?”
Fiona chuckled when Jody rolled her eyes at her and playfully ruffled her hair. The dark-green eyes looked at her intently and Jody knew there was another question coming. She mentally braced herself, hoping she would be able to give her sister the answers she needed.
“I remember when we first met Sam,” Fiona started. “But I was just a little squirt then and I missed the opportunity to observe you like I did Lucy.” Fiona smiled when Jody softly chuckled. “How…when…I mean… goodness, now I’m losing my ability to speak,” Fiona groaned, letting out a frustrated sigh.
“I doubt it,” Jody remarked dryly. “I know what you want to ask me, Fi, but when you say the words, it will be real, won’t it?”
“Oh, God, yes,” the photographer whispered. “But you know me, Jody, I’m not the type to play hide and seek. Not even with myself.”
“I know, so I’ll be frank with you. You want me to tell you how I knew I had fallen in love with Sam.” Jody saw Fiona swallow hard, but her sister nodded in agreement.
“From the first moment Sam and I met, I liked her,” Jody said, not aware of the smile in her eyes. “I don’t think I’d ever been in love before, so I had no comparison. I simply liked her. When we went back home, after we’d met that first time, I missed her and I couldn’t wait to see her again. She made me feel things I’d never felt before.”
“Like what?” Fiona interrupted.
“It’s hard to explain,” Jody smiled. “But whenever I was with Sam, I felt happier than I’d ever felt before. I felt complete, at home. Just after we’d met, I felt like I’d known her all my life. She made me feel safe and special.”
“You are special,” Fiona smiled, touched by the warmth and affection that radiated from her sister’s face.
“So, what about the whole gay issue?” Fiona asked curiously. “How did it make you feel that you were in love with another woman?”
“To be honest, I never really gave it much thought,” Jody replied. “Falling in love with Sam felt like the most natural thing in the world. I know we were raised to believe differently and I remember I was puzzled by that, because I couldn’t imagine that what Sam and I had together could be wrong. So I just accepted it for what it was. I know there are a lot of people who struggle with their sexual identity, but, fortunately, I never had to go through that.”
Jody cast a look at the pensive expression in a pair of dark-green eyes and her heart went out to her younger sister; she realized Fiona was fighting with some inner demons.
“What are the odds, sis?” Fiona sighed, rubbing her tired eyes and wincing when her fingers accidently touched a sensitive cut on her cheek.
“About what, sweetie?”
Fiona swallowed and looked down at her hands, trying to come up with the words that could explain how she was feeling deep down inside.
“There are six of us, three boys, three girls. It must be amazing that both you and Lucy are lesbians. Two girls from one family. In our case that would be…thirty-three percent. I’m sure that’s not in unison with current statistics,” Fiona joked.
“Thirty-three point three,” Jody corrected with a chuckle. “And who knows, it could even be fifty. Couldn’t it?” she added softly.
“But that’s…that’s weird. That would be beyond comprehension,” Fiona almost exclaimed.
“I don’t think so,” Jody answered calmly. “Besides, when Sam and I were in the Netherlands, I met a family with four children. Two of them were gay, so, that was fifty percent.” Jody paused and put her hand on Fiona’s arm. “You know, Fi, hiding behind math and statistics won’t make the feelings go away. You do realize that, don’t you?”
“I knew you’d say that,” Fiona answered, almost grumpily, which made Jody laugh. “How can I deal with this, Jody? I don’t know what to do.”
“I know it’s confusing, sweetie, and I know you’ re upset, but try to stay true to yourself and be honest. I know you’ re an expert at hiding your feelings, but when you’re behind that wall of yours, take the time to have a good look at what’s inside your heart. Ignoring this won’t make it go away, Fi. It could even make it worse. Don’t run away from it.”
“I’m sure the first step will be the hardest,” Fiona sighed, casting a frustrated look at her sister.
“So, if I tell you that…that,” Fiona swallowed hard and moistened her dry lips, struggling to get the words out. She took a deep breath and unconsciously straightened her back. “If I tell you that I think… I might…be…in love with Robin, I’d feel better?”
“Do you?” Jody smiled.
Fiona nibbled on her bottom lip, while she rocked on her heels. There was a twinkle in her eyes when she looked down at her sister, sending her a warm smile.
“You know, Pea, I think I do. At the moment, anyway. I’m sure I’ll be miserable again later.”
Jody laughed and wrapped her arms around Fiona’s tall frame to give her a quick hug.
“I’ll be here for you, Fi.”
“I know and I’m very grateful for that,” Fiona sighed, dropping a kiss on the top of her sister’s head. “Do you think the others will notice?”
“Alice has,” Jody answered with honesty.
“She has? How?”
“I don’t know,” Jody smiled. “It’s an Alice thing, I guess. You know how she goes by instinct and intuition.”
“And how do you know that she knows?” Fiona inquired.
Jody looked up into a pair of puzzled dark-green eyes and she winked.
“Instinct and intuition,” she answered with a smug smile.
“Oh, goodie,” Fiona sighed. “Between the two of you, there’s nothing I can hide, is there?”
“Probably not,” Jody chuckled. “But knowing we both love you very much, might help you deal with it a little.”
“This place is filled with women and love,” Fiona answered dryly. “Maybe we should change the name of the property. What about…Sappho’s Farm? Or Rainbow Amazons? Lesbian Lane, maybe.”
“You’ re bad,” Jody laughed. “But why don’t you suggest it to Sam? I’m sure she’d be interested to know why you want to change it.”
“Oh, no,” Fiona replied quickly. “If Sam and Lucy find out, my life will be over! Are you going to tell Sam?”
“Not if you don’t want me to,” Jody replied seriously. “But I don’t like to keep things from Sam. You don’t have to be afraid, Fi. Sam can keep a secret. I know she loves to tease you, but if she knows how tough this is for you, she won’t do that. Not until it becomes public, anyway,” Jody added with a smile.
“That might never happen,” Fiona answered in a somber voice. “Most of the time I just annoy the heck out of Robin.”
Jody, remembering how Robin’s eyes had constantly darted to Fiona, just smiled and grabbed her sister’s hand to pull her along while she started the short walk back to the house.
“You’d be surprised,” she smiled.
“Here they come,” Yarra announced with a hint of relief in her voice. She was worried about Fiona, who, besides Alice, was her best friend. It had not been like Fiona at all to lose her composure in front of people who were practically strangers and Yarra wondered what was wrong with the photographer.
But seeing Fiona walk down the hill, her arm firmly wrapped around Jody’s shoulders, talking and laughing, made Yarra believe that, whatever it was that was bothering her friend, it hadn’t upset her that long. Visibly. Fiona was a very private person and her friends and family knew she was an expert at putting up a front.
“You alright?” Yarra asked when Fiona jumped up on the veranda, ignoring the three steps completely, which earned her a mumbled ‘show off’, from Jody.
“I’m fine, thanks C.J.,” Fiona smiled. “Sorry about that…emotional intermezzo.”
“No worries,” the dark-skinned woman replied. “After what Trishia told us, we all could use a break.”
“So I didn’t miss anything important?” Fiona asked, holding open the door for Jody and Yarra to step inside, away from the midday heat.
“Nope, nothing, except for Alice’s fresh coffee,” Yarra chuckled, knowing how much her friend loved the caffeinated beverage. “But she might have something left for you.”
“And you missed my arrival,” a cheerful voice sounded behind her. With a huge smile, Fiona turned around to greet her brother.
“Hey, Mikey! That’s a surprise. You still haven’t grown much since the last time I saw you.”
“We can’t all be bean poles, stretch,” Michael McDonnell laughed, giving his youngest sister a quick hug. Fiona was about ten centimeters taller than he was, but Michael didn’t care. He had inherited his looks and height from his mother’s side of the family, like Jody had, and he was content with that.
Only after greeting her brother, Fiona noticed someone else in the huge kitchen. With raised eyebrows and a cool glance she intercepted the look that was sent her way by a well-built, good-looking young man, whom she immediately classified as a ‘surfer boy’. Inwardly, she sighed when she noticed the way he leered at her.
Another one who thinks he’s God’s gift to women. What the heck is Michael doing with an idiot like that?
“Oh, Fi, Jody, this is Ira, he’s a class mate,” Michael hurried to explain, aware of Fiona’s barely hidden disapproving look. “He came down with me this weekend, because his parents are away for a few days and he had nowhere to go.”
“And I really wanted to meet Mike’s family,” Ira explained with a dazzling smile. “I’ve heard so much about all of you.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Ira,” Jody smiled warmly.
Fiona merely nodded and sank down on a kitchen chair, next to Joshua, who greeted her with an amused chuckle. He understood Fiona’s obvious dislike of Michael’s friend. He didn’t like Ira, either. To Joshua, the young man was way too polished and too aware of his good looks. And way too dense, Joshua observed, when Ira was still trying to catch the attention of Fiona, who studiously ignored him.
Glancing aside Joshua noticed the expression on his sister’s face and he had to cough to hide the laugh that suddenly bubbled up inside. He could tell Robin was trying very hard to be polite and the expression on her face was a neutral one, but the murderous glare she sent Ira had not escaped him.
Joshua straightened up in his chair and looked around the kitchen with shining eyes. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.
“I guess we’ll have to continue our…conversation later,” Sam sighed, sending Trishia a tired look.
The police woman nodded and shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Sam. It’s not that I don’t trust Michael, it’s just that…”
“I know,” Sam interrupted her friend. “And you’ re right. It’s none of his business.”
“Exactly,” Trishia agreed. She cast a look at Ira, whose eyes darted between Fiona and Lucy, as if he couldn’t decide on who to stare at.
“Want me to tell her she’s taken?” Sam’s amused voice sounded and Trishia smiled wryly.
“Don’t worry about it. He’s just a boy,” she shrugged. “Testosterone-filled and way too bold, but a boy just the same.”
“Well, if he keeps staring at Fiona like that he might be sorry. She’s not looking too happy,” Sam grinned, amused by the dark looks the photographer kept sending across the table.
“Even if she’d get all cynical on him, somehow I don’t think he’d understand. Do you?”
Sam laughed and shook her head.
“It might be the hormones that have caused a temporarily brain-freeze, but somehow I’m afraid you’ re right.”
“It’s hard to be a young-adult,” Trishia grinned, pushing away from the kitchen counter and stretching her tall frame. “I guess I’ll take my McDonnell home and make sure she gets some rest. I’ll leave the rest of the clan in your capable care,” she chuckled. “Let’s try and meet again somewhere tomorrow. There’s a lot we need to talk about.” Trishia cast a look around the room, seeing everybody involved in some kind of conversation. For a moment she hesitated. Would it be fair to add more responsibility and pressure on Sam’s shoulders? Maybe not, but if there was one person she trusted blindly, it was Samantha Stevens.
“Don’t talk about this morning, or last night. If Michael asks about it, which he will, make up something. Whatever you do, don’t mention anything about your security system and make sure to keep an eye on that Ira bloke. I don’t trust him, Sam. I might be wrong, but I do have a gut feeling about this.”
“Point taken,” Sam answered softly, glad to know she wasn’t the only one who had a bad feeling about Michael’s friend. She didn’t know what it was. Maybe the jovial way he had greeted everybody, as if he had known them for a long time. Or the way his smile never reached his blue eyes. Whatever it was, she was determined to keep an eye on the young man. And as soon as she had the chance, she’d ask Michael about his friend.
“I’ll keep in touch, Sam and as soon as I learn anything new about the case, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks, Trish, I appreciate that,” Sam nodded, giving the other woman a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Now, take your other half home, she looks like she needs a nap.”
“So do I,” Trishia grinned. “I’ll call you later, Dutchie.”
“I’m counting on that, Aussie.”
It was hours later. The darkness had set in and when Fiona and Robin slowly strolled back to the apartment, it was under a star-filled sky.
“I really like your brother,” Robin spoke softly. “He’s so much like Jody, it’s amazing.”
“Yeah, what’s not to like?” Fiona smiled. “Mike is a great guy. I wonder why he’s dragged along that…idiot. He never had shallow friends like that. It’s against the family rules,” she added jokingly.
“Sam was wondering about that as well,” Robin answered. “I heard her ask him about it.”
“She did? What did he say?” Fiona asked curiously. She would have loved to have had a chance to talk to her brother about it, but he and Ira had left before dinner, they would be meeting some friends at the beach.
“Well, it’s not my habit to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, Fiona,” Robin drawled, glancing aside at the photographer, who merely snorted and gently bumped her with her shoulder.
“Speak up, woman. I know you’ve heard something. This whole situation is weird enough as it is. Why else would Sam tell Mike that you and I got hurt while horseback riding?”
“Yes, that was a surprise,” Robin mused.
“It sure was,” Fiona agreed. “Did you see Yarra’s and Alice’s faces? They looked absolutely flabbergasted.”
“But they got over that real quick,” Robin spoke with admiration. “It’s amazing how fast they picked up on Sam’s story. And Jody never even blinked!”
Fiona laughed and shook her head, adjusting her long strides to Robin’s shorter ones.
“Jody’s very smart. She probably knew, just by looking at Sam, what she was going to say. Those two are the best team there is. They know each other so well, I swear they have telepathic conversations.” Fiona glanced aside and smiled. “So, tell me, what did Mike tell Sam? I know you heard.”
“He told Sam he hasn’t known Ira that long, but he’s a friend of a friend. You know how that goes. They hang out together in the same group. Apparently Ira asked Michael for a ride, because he wanted to visit his aunt, who lives around here. The aunt wasn’t home and he had nowhere to go, so…to make a short story shorter, your brother offered him a place to stay for a couple of days.”
“Sounds like Mike, alright,” Fiona sighed. “He’s too trusting sometimes.”
“Unlike you,” Robin spoke softly, but there was no resentment in her voice, just a quiet recognition.
“Unlike me,” Fiona admitted. “I’ve different rules than Mike does. With me, people have to earn my trust. And respect.”
“And friendship,” Robin added gently.
“That, too,” Fiona admitted reluctantly.
“Because you were hurt badly,” Robin concluded, referring back to the conversation they had that morning. “Because people aren’t always who or what they seem.”
“That’s right,” Fiona answered softly. “You got it.”
“The fact that Joe Michaels is my uncle bothers you, doesn’t it?” Robin asked, her eyes followed the blinking lights of an airplane high in the darkened sky. Fiona didn’t answer and Robin suppressed a sigh.
“If it’s any consolation, Joshua and I hardly know the man. He’s my mother’s youngest brother and there was a fifteen year age difference between them. He was only ten when I was born and he and my grandparents lived on the other side of the country. We hardly ever saw him and then he hooked up with the wrong people and nobody knew where he lived. Until a few years ago.” Robin sighed and rubbed her forehead. “But you know all about that story. I’m just happy that he’s off the street and spending the rest of his life in prison. Where he belongs,” she added bitterly.
“I really don’t care about that low-life being your uncle. That just proves the fact that even creeps can have a nice family. I was just surprised. I wish I’d have known,” Fiona sighed. “Because something, deep down inside, tells me he’s involved in all this. Again.”
“But how? He’s in a high security prison.”
“All it takes is a dirty guard, or a buddy who is released and sends messages to one prisoner, who sends it to another one, and so forth, to finally land in Joe’s cell. There are many ways to distribute information. All it takes is some creativity.”
“Being a software engineer, I’ll take your word for it,” Robin sighed, feeling drained and empty. The cool night air brushed against her skin and involuntarily she shivered, wishing she was in bed, asleep and warm.
Suddenly, she looked up and cast Fiona an amused glance. Softly laughing she shook her head.
“What?” Fiona urged, wondering what was so amusing.
“You did it again,” Robin smiled. “I ask you a personal question and somehow we end up talking about something completely different.”
“It’s a talent,” Fiona chuckled. “It took me years to refine it and I guess I don’t even realize I’m doing it,” she added with a hint of regret in her voice. For a brief moment she hesitated, but then she took a deep, cleansing breath, feeling her heart pound in her chest.
“So, what did you want to know about me?”
Completely taken by surprise, Robin looked up and nearly lost her balance on the gravel road. It was Fiona’s hand on her arm that prevented her from falling and, with a wry smile, she looked up.
“Now, that was clumsy. Thanks, Fiona. Ending up rolling down the hill sounds very painful.”
“It is, believe me,” Fiona nodded. “I’ve done it. I’m sorry for springing that question on you. I’m sure it was the last thing you expected.”
Fiona’s voice bordered on being shy and Robin smiled. For some reason, Fiona had decided to open up to her and she knew that was something the photographer usually didn’t do. It was an unexpected gift and Robin was very grateful for it.
“It shows you trust me,” Robin spoke quietly. “I’m glad you do. Especially in the situation we’ re in. But, to answer your question about what I want to know about you…”
What about everything? Every little detail there is to know. Even though that would probably take longer than a lifetime .
“Let’s continue where we left off, this morning. You said you wanted to make sure your father would never stop loving Jody.” Robin paused and decided to be completely honest and open with Fiona hoping it would not scare the other woman away. “That touched me deeply,” she continued in a hoarse voice, wondering why, in spite of her aching, tired body, she wished they could continue their walk for hours. Maybe it was the intimacy of the darkness, but she felt like she and Fiona had grown a little closer and she wanted to treasure that feeling, lock it away in her heart and make it a part of herself.
“It’s very selfless to wish something for somebody else and that proved to me what I’ve been thinking all along. Ever since we first met.” Robin glanced aside at the taller woman, who had her hands stuffed in the pockets of her shorts and who looked like she was casually strolling along. But the tense look of concentration on her face was an indication to Robin that she had Fiona’s undivided attention.
“You’ re a softie,” she spoke warmly, smiling when she noticed the way Fiona shrugged her shoulders. “But your secret is safe with me, don’t worry. What I’d like to know is what happened. I don’t want to pry, Fiona, and if you don’t want to tell me, then that’s fine with me, but what made your father stop loving Jody?”
“I don’t mind telling you,” Fiona answered softly.
She opened the door to the apartment and let Robin in, before turning around and securely locking the door and activating the security system that was linked to the one in the main house. Sam’s instructions had been very specific and Fiona knew there was a reason to be extra careful.
“This is not a diversion tactic, but do you want some hot tea?” Fiona asked with a smile.
“Please,” Robin sighed. “I feel like I was dropped from an airplane….without a parachute. And I’m cold.”
“Make yourself comfortable on the couch. I’ll be right back.”
Fiona disappeared in the small kitchen and Robin, who had sank down in the soft pillows on the couch, let her eyes lazily drift across the room occasionally studying one of Fiona’s many photographs.
She had no idea how much time had passed, but when Fiona suddenly appeared with a tray, she looked up startled.
“It’s just me,” Fiona grinned, having seen the expression on Robin’s face. “Here’s your tea, here’s some water, and here’s a pain pill. You look like you need one.”
“Thank you,” Robin sighed, feeling wonderfully pampered and taken care of. She looked up when a soft, warm blanket was draped around her shoulders and shot Fiona a grateful look.
“I don’t want you to freeze to death,” Fiona remarked dryly, letting her tall frame sink in a chair opposite Robin. “My story might be boring. So, if you’d fall asleep, at least you’d be comfy.”
“Try me,” Robin smiled, sipping her tea and watching Fiona with expectant eyes.
“I don’t care how long it takes. Besides, it’s a big area, I’m sure you can get close without attracting attention.”
“But I’ll have to be back in a few days.”
“No worries. You do what you’ ve got to do. We’ ll take all the time we need. This needs to be good. You do understand that, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. I did make a few sketches already and by the time I’m back, I’ll have more. We might go back up there again tomorrow.”
“Don’t attract attention. These people are not stupid and I don’t want them to suspect you. Maybe you should skip tomorrow and go back on your own. You’ ve all the high tech stuff you need to keep your distance and I want you to use it. Got it?”
“Yes, I got it.”
“Good boy. See what you can find out tomorrow and call me at the same time. Make me proud!”
The shadows on the ceiling painted different shapes as Sam gave her thoughts free rein while her eyes followed a shadow that looked like a big bug. Involuntarily Sam smiled when her thoughts traveled to her two year old daughter. Taryn loved insects and whenever she spotted one, the little girl squealed in delight. It was amazing to have two children, twins, who were so different. Taryn was adventurous and reckless, always chattering to herself and her brother, while Timothy was more deliberate than his sister. More quiet. But, just like his twin, he always had a sunny smile ready for anybody who would greet them. It was a copy of Jody’s smile and Sam could not be happier about that. It was warm, friendly and always welcoming and she could only hope their children would grow up to be like her partner.
Sam let out a small sigh and glanced aside to the subject of her thoughts. Jody was fast asleep, her head pillowed on Sam’s shoulder, pinning the other woman to the mattress with an arm and leg that were draped around Sam’s body. It was, by far, Jody’s favorite position to sleep in and even though Sam sometimes teased her about it, she loved it as well. It gave her the opportunity to study Jody’s peaceful features, something of which she would never get enough. Just laying in bed, holding the woman that had stolen her heart so many years ago, was still something that filled her with awe and wonder. And the fact that their loving union had been blessed with two healthy children, only added to her gratitude.
Sam’s eyes traveled to a little box on the wall, next to the door. The feint glow of a tiny green light was reassuring. The security system was working, keeping an electronic eye on her loved ones and Sam knew it would sound the alarm as soon as somebody or something would approach the house. From any angle.
Peter Jones’ brother, Gary, kept her informed about the latest equipment and Sam was always willing to upgrade the system. There was no price too high to keep her family safe.
I haven’t heard anything yet, Sam, but as soon as I do, I’ll let you know. I promise, Trishia’s words echoed in her mind.
That evening she had spent some time on the phone with the police woman. Sam knew Trishia blamed herself for missing what she called an obvious clue. Sam didn’t blame her though. Who could have thought there might be a link between Steven Hayes, who had been dead for more than three years now, and the things that had happened in the past few days?
Trishia was going over all the information that concerned the situation with The Reef. Somehow there was a link between what had happened then and what was happening now. Trishia had told Sam that she was convinced Joe Michaels played a crucial role. But before she would head to his prison cell to question him, she needed more information. She didn’t expect much from the man, but she knew she had to try. And maybe Fred would be able to shed some light on the case.
Sam chuckled when she remembered the wry tone in Trishia’s voice when she had told her Lucy insisted she was to tell the inmate artist to stop sketching her sister. Although Fiona had not seemed to be bothered by it at all.
Sam smiled in the darkness and unconsciously tightened her grip on Jody’s warm body.
Fiona McDonnell had finally fallen in love. Or, at least, she thought she had. And Sam could not tease her. Jody had been very specific about that. But the thought alone was amazing. Sam loved her sister-in-law dearly and she truly wanted to see her happy, but as soon as she would get the opportunity, she’d make sure to let Fiona feel what it was like to be in love and being teased about it.
“What’s that smug smile for?” a sleepy voice sounded in her ear and when Sam turned her head, she looked straight in a pair of lazily blinking eyes.
“Your youngest sister,” Sam explained, pressing her lips against Jody’s forehead.
“You’ re gloating because she’s in love,” Jody yawned.
“Sure I am,” Sam answered with a chuckle. “I’m sorry she’s having a hard time with it, but honey, it will be so entertaining to just lean back and watch all the interesting developments.”
“She’s very vulnerable right now, Sam,” Jody warned.
“I know, sweetheart and I promised you I wouldn’t say a word. And I won’t. But as soon as she’s figured out the specifics, she’s fair game.”
“I know,” Jody smiled. “And she knows that too. She’ ll be prepared, Sam.”
“That’s alright,” Sam sighed happily. “I love a challenge.”
“You and Fi are just…you two are so bad_ ”
“But you love us anyway, don’t you, sweetie?” Sam pouted, which earned her a quick, but heartfelt kiss.
“I do,” Jody mumbled, snuggling back into Sam’s arms. “Very much. G’night, Sam.”
“Sweet dreams, my love,” Sam whispered, brushing a strand of hair away from Jody’s forehead.
Within a few minutes Sam felt her eyes grow heavy and it didn’t take long before her breathing deepened and her body and mind drifted off in a deep, undisturbed sleep.
The green light in the security box glowed steadfastly in the darkness of the night.
Trying not to bump into anything, Robin made her way through the dark apartment. She was headed for the kitchen, to take another pain pill. In her sleep she had turned on her side and the dull, throbbing pain in her shoulder had awoken her immediately. She did not like taking medication, but if she didn’t take anything, she knew she would not be able to go back to sleep.
Finding her way in the darkness, Robin managed to find a glass and filled it with cold water. She knew Fiona had put the small bottle with pills in the corner of the counter top and it didn’t take her any trouble to find it and remove a pill. She quickly swallowed it down and emptied her glass.
Turning around to return to the bedroom, she suddenly froze in her tracks when her ears picked up the feint, but unmistakable sound of breathing. Holding her own breath, Robin stepped into the livingroom and her eyes, adjusted to the darkness, fell on the couch, where she detected the sleeping form of Fiona.
“What the…?” she whispered, convinced that Fiona had gone to bed when Robin had. She had heard Fiona go into the bedroom next to hers and she wondered why the photographer was sleeping on the couch that was way too small for her to stretch out on. It really didn’t look very comfortable for the tall woman.
Robin nibbled her bottom lip and wondered if it would be a good idea to wake up Fiona, so she could spend the rest of the night in a more comfortable bed. After a few moments of indecision se decided against it. She didn’t want to wake the other woman and rob her of any sleep.
Robin was about to turn around when her eyes fell on the blanket Fiona had given her before. It had slid on the floor next to the couch. Deciding she could at least cover the photographer with the blanket, Robin stepped closer, careful to not make a sound and grabbed the soft blanket, spreading it out and covering Fiona’s sleeping form. When she took a step back, her eyes fell on a small pile of photos that were neatly stacked on the coffee table and curiously she bent forward to take a better look.
Robin gasped and with wide eyes she reached out and grabbed the pictures, so she could study them closer. With astonishment she looked at a photo of herself. She had no idea when Fiona had taken the picture, but it must have been before her tumble down the mountain, because her face was clean and unscathed.
Robin didn’t know whether to be annoyed or flattered to secretly have her picture taken. Sinking down in the chair opposite the couch, she looked at the close-up Fiona had made.
The light of the moon was not enough to really notice any colors, but sufficient to see that the photo was a good one. Robin had been wearing her Akubra hat and was staring intently at something in the distance. A few curls had escaped from underneath her hat and were playfully dangling on her forehead.
Robin realized Fiona must have taken the picture when she had been on the mountain and curiously she looked at the other pictures in the small stack. There was one more picture of her, sitting on a huge boulder, her arms wrapped her knees that were pulled up against her chest. Again she was staring into the distance, but this time a small smile curved her lips and Robin knew exactly when the picture had been taken and what she had been staring at. She had been watching the antics of two little possums, thoroughly enjoying the solitude of the wilderness.
Robin softly snorted and cast a look at the sleeping Fiona. So much for solitude. Apparently she had not been alone. Somebody had been lurking around the bushes.
Sometimes, when I see something beautiful, or amazing, I just have to take a picture of it. It’s almost a compulsive disorder, Fiona’s voice echoed in her mind and Robin smiled.
“I guess I should be flattered,” she mumbled softly, carefully putting the photos back on the table.
Leaning back into the comfortable chair, Robin stared at Fiona with pensive eyes. The photographer had talked to her about her relationship with her father, or the lack thereof and Robin tried to imagine what it would have been like, to grow up without the loving support of her own father.
It would have been horrible, she knew. She had always been very close to her father, whom she adored. His resignation from the police force and his unexpected death had left deep wounds she thought would never completely heal.
If her father would have disowned her, like David McDonnell had his two eldest daughters, she knew she would have been miserable for the rest of her life.
Thank you, dad, for loving me, no matter what.
Robin swallowed hard and rapidly blinked a few times to clear her eyes from the tears she felt stinging. With a deep sigh, she stared at the couch. She felt that Fiona had opened up a little more, which she was grateful for, but it was still hard to figure out the private person that was Fiona McDonnell.
Robin’s eyes traveled to the photographer’s face, noticing how relaxed and young she looked while asleep. Watching somebody sleep was pretty intimate and Robin felt like she was taking advantage of the situation, but still, she couldn’t look away.
Fiona’s breathing was deep and regular. She was laying on her side, with her knees pulled up. One hand was tucked underneath her chin and the dark, shoulder-length hair framed the freckled face that looked pale in the light of the moon.
Robin smiled, fighting the urge to lean forward and brush away a strand of hair that partly covered Fiona’s cheek. She silently wondered if the dark hair would feel as soft and silky as it looked. It probably would. Just like Fiona’s skin and lips.
Robin’s eyes flew open, while her heart jumped in her chest and she almost gasped in surprise. Deep down inside something stirred. Something that had been trampled on and had withered away. Something she thought was long dead.
“No, this can’t be,” she whispered to herself. “Not now. Not ever,” she swallowed away the lump in her throat, suddenly feeling very sad and miserable. “Not Fiona.”
Trying not to make a sound, Robin jumped up from the chair and, without looking back, quickly walked to the guest bedroom, softly closing the door behind her.
In the living room a pair of dark-green eyes stared at the ceiling with a pained, troubled expression. A single tear slid down, reflecting the pale moonlight. It touched a small cut on the bridge of Fiona’s nose, before it landed on her hand.
Sleep had become elusive.
It was still dark when he left and carefully slid the huge rock in front of the opening. But that was alright. He was used to the dark. He had come to love it. There was safety in the impenetrable darkness. The night had become his friend, many years ago. The light of the day was too harsh and threatening. It was unforgiven and merciless and showed him things he did not want to see, like the look in people’s eyes, or the expression on their faces.
The emotional pain had been so much worse than the physical pain he had been through. Until one day, the whispered words and rejection had become too much to handle. He had made a mistake, he knew, a grave one and that’s when he decided to leave. He ran, looking for a place to hide and time to heal.
In the eyes of the world he was a freak, a monster and there was no chance that anyone would ever be able to see through the repulsive outside, to really see the person inside. No one would ever know about his struggle. The endless, sleepless nights, filled with pain. And regret. No one would ever know about his deep longing to belong. Somewhere. Anywhere.
The man had tracked him down. How, he still did not know. He had offered him money and a home, but he had declined. All he wanted was to be left in peace.
And then he had told him about the murder. The cold, heartless taking of the life of a person he had known so well. It had felt like his heart had been ripped out of his chest and he had howled in grief, anger and frustration. And he had sworn revenge.
The man had smiled and had given him a small box. And some instructions. He had followed them to the letter and all he had to do now, was wait.
But he was ready.
With blazing eyes, Trishia slammed her fist on the table, making the young man who was sitting across from her, jump in surprise.
“For crying out loud, Fred. Why don’t you tell me the truth?”
“I am,” the young man almost cried, while his brown eyes looked at Peter Jones pleadingly.
Trishia’s partner was standing behind her, casually leaning against the wall. He seemed relaxed, almost absent minded, but looks were deceptive. Peter’s eyes took in every little move Fred made and his ears picked up on every sound, no matter how soft.
“I am telling the truth. I’m sorry about Fi…Miss McDonnell’s picture. I never meant to…I never…I didn’t know someone from here would recognize her. I just drew her from memory. She’s very pretty and I just…I just…”
“We get the picture,” Trishia sighed. “Listen Fred, for the…umpteenth time, I need you to tell me about Kevin Swanson. According to him, you sent him to warn Samantha Stevens about something.”
“But I didn’t,” Fred sighed, looking Trishia straight in the eyes. “Honest to God, Senior-Sergeant, I didn’t. I swear.” Fred swallowed hard and plucked the hem of his shirt nervously.
Peter Jones cast a look at his partner and stepped closer to the table. He had not forgotten that the frightened young man had been very helpful after they had arrested Joe Michaels. And he had been very sincere in his feelings of guilt and regret.
“It’s alright, Fred,” he spoke gently and from the corner of his eye he saw Trishia take a step back. Inwardly he chuckled. It was like they were playing a game of ‘Good cop, bad cop’. “I believe you, I really do. But the fact that you didn’t send Kevin Swanson, only makes this case more complicated. We really need some information, Fred. People could be in danger.”
Fred nodded and cast down his eyes, fighting hard not to lose his composure in the presence of the two police officers. The last few years had been very hard on him, but he knew that when he was released from his captivity, he would make sure never to do anything that would land him behind bars again. He had promised himself that.
But how could he protect the only person in the world who meant anything to him, if he was locked up, with nowhere to go? His hands were tied and Fred knew his best option would be to trust Trishia Waters and Peter Jones. No matter what would happen to him. It was the right thing to do.
“They know where she lives,” he almost whispered.
“Who?” Trishia immediately asked. “Fiona?”
“I don’t know about that,” Fred answered with an audible quiver in his voice. “But they know where Nancy lives. My sister.”
“And where is that?” Peter asked, not unfriendly.
Fred’s reaction to that question was unexpected and involuntarily both Peter and Trishia took a step back, when the timid young man suddenly jumped up and kicked back his chair.
“I don’t know_ ” he yelled. “I’ve no damn idea where she lives_ How sick is that, huh? That’s how screwed up my life is. I don’t even know where my own sister lives. I’ve no idea how or where to reach her, while those sick bastards know exactly where to find her. They made that very clear.”
Trishia and Peter exchanged a look that was a mixture of surprise, anger, frustration and worry.
“Calm down, Fred,” Trishia responded, walking around the table to pick up the chair, while Peter gestured to the guard outside the door that everything was under control.
“Take a seat, mate,” Peter urged the young man, pointing to the chair. “You need to tell us everything, alright? I’m sure we can help you and your sister, but you need to talk to us. We’ re your best bet to keep her safe.”
“I know,” Fred answered, slowly sinking back in his chair. “I know that. I’m sorry. I guess I should be glad you’re here. There was no way I could contact you.”
“You could have told the guards you had some information for us,” Trishia replied calmly. “I’m sure they would have contacted us.”
“I’ve tried,” Fred whispered, not seeing the look of surprise Trishia and Peter exchanged. “Several times, even. But nobody wanted to listen.”
“I’m sorry about that, Fred,” Trishia frowned. “I promise we’ll look into that, alright? I’m sure there’s a lot you should tell us, but there’s one thing I really need to know first.”
Trishia paused, which had the desired effect, because Fred looked up at her expectantly.
“Do you have any idea who’s behind all this?”
Fred nodded and without looking away he answered immediately.
“I still can’t believe Trish didn’t want to tell me anything,” Sam mumbled, using the remote control to flip through the tv channels mindlessly.
“Stop pouting, Sam,” Jody answered, looking up from the photo-album she was working on. Fiona had given her some new pictures of the twins and Jody had decided to put them in the ever-growing album immediately. “You know Trish can’t tell you everything she sees and hears. She’s in the middle of an investigation.”
“But it’s been almost four days,” Sam sighed.
“Yes and one of those days was spent with Lucy, to celebrate,” Jody replied, smiling when she remembered her sister’s unexpected, but welcome visit, after her trip to the gynecologist. Lucy had been beaming and had even cried a few moments when Timothy had crawled unto her lap to give her a hug. She had blamed it on her changing hormone levels and the two sisters had laughed heartily about that.
“I’m so happy for them,” Jody spoke, letting out a contended smile.
“And I’m behaving like a…a…,” Sam chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Help me out, honey.”
“You’re behaving like a spoiled two year old,” Jody immediately answered calmly, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.
“Our kids are not spoiled,” Sam responded predictably.
“No, they’ re not. But you are,” Jody dead-panned, grinning when she noticed a pair of indignant blue eyes looking up at her from the couch.
“Sam, honey, I know you want this whole situation solved as soon as possible, we all do. But Trishia has to go by the rules. She and her team are working hard to get the answers they’ re looking for. I’m sure she’ll tell you as soon as she can.”
With an impatience gesture, Sam turned off the TV and dropped the remote control on the low coffee table, making a mental note to put it away later, to prevent her children from dissecting it in the morning.
“I know, you’re right, as usual,” she answered with a wry smile. “I’m being a selfish, heartless, inconsiderate wench.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jody remarked dryly. “You’ re my wench, that’s for sure.”
Sam’s eyes caught Jody’s smiling ones and with little effort she jumped up from the couch, walked to the table and engulfed her laughing partner in a big hug.
“You always know how to make me feel better,” she sighed happily, kissing Jody’s forehead.
“That’s because I know you so well, Samantha Stevens. Oh, and because I love you, of course,” she added with a wink.
“And I love you,” Sam answered, nuzzling the soft skin of her partner’s neck. “Want to go to bed?”
Jody chuckled and turned her head so she could kiss Sam’s cheek.
“Joshua’s not back home yet,” she answered.
“Listen to you,” Sam smiled. “‘Back home’. Does that mean we’ ll have to add on to the house? This family is getting bigger and bigger.”
“I’m sure Josh has better things to do than to spend all his time with women-folk, honey,” Jody answered with a chuckle. “But he and Robin are always welcome here. Right?”
“Right,” Sam answered. “The more the merrier. Talking about my smart conservation biologist, how are she and Fiona doing in the love-department?”
“I don’t know and I’m not going to ask,” Jody immediately answered.
“Oh, come on, sweetie,” Sam urged with sparkling eyes. “I know you know something. You’re better at that stuff than I am. Come on, share with me.”
“You are bad, Sam,” Jody gently rebuked, but she was smiling.
“I know I’m bad, but isn’t that what makes me so irresistible?” Sam grinned, bringing her head closer to Jody’s. “Come on, baby, you can tell me,” she purred in a shapely ear, chuckling when she noticed the goose bumps appear on Jody’s skin.
“Alright, alright,” Jody laughed, rubbing her arm. “Haven’t you seen them together?”
Sam’s face suddenly became serious and she frowned when her thoughts went over the past few days.
“Um, no, not really,” she answered.
“What does that tell you?”
“It seemed to me that, at first, they were getting along fine. You think something happened?”
“They’ re avoiding each other, Sam,” Jody sighed, pressing her cheek against Sam’s shoulder. “And they both look like they’re missing a lot of sleep. The few moments I see them together, they both seem to…perk up a little. And I’ve seen the way they look at each other. But they’ re both scared out of their senses.”
“Mmm,” Sam sighed. “What are we’re going to do about it, love?”
“We can’t interfere in their lives, Sam,” Jody answered, but Sam detected a hint of amusement in her lover’s voice and she pulled her partner closer.
“What have you done?”
“Nothing,” Jody answered, too innocent for Sam to believe her.
“Oh, no, you’ re not getting out of this one, my sweet,” Sam laughed. “What have you done? I know you, Jody Pea McDonnell. Confess.”
“I didn’t do a thing,” Jody laughed. “I might have made a few suggestions though, but that’s all.”
“And those were…what exactly?”
“Oh, nothing special. It seemed to me that the girls would probably feel a bit more comfortable to be away from their curious families, so I told Robin about that really nice art gallery in Brisbane and I might have mentioned the fact that Fiona’s leaving for Brisbane tomorrow, to do that beauty pageant thing,” Jody smiled.
“And you couldn’t resist and told her they could always spend the night with Alice and Yarra, am I right?”
“It doesn’t seem logical, Sam, for Robin to stay at a hotel while Fi stays with the girls.”
“No, not logical at all,” Sam agreed with a laugh. “And you call me bad? You’re a little matchmaker.”
“No, I’m not,” Jody shook her head. “But I do believe the match is there. It’s just a matter of making them see that as well.”
“Do you really believe Robin and Fiona would make a good couple?” Sam asked seriously.
“Yes, honey, I do,” Jody nodded. “First of all, there’s the mutual attraction. They probably think they’re doing a good job hiding it from the rest of the world, but they aren’t. Secondly, I’ve always pictured Fiona with someone who’s a little older than she is. She needs somebody stable, sensible and patient. Someone who sees through the outside facade and notices the person Fiona is really. I’ve got the distinct feeling Robin is doing just that. Thirdly, Robin needs somebody who’ll make her see all the good, little things in life. Someone who makes her laugh and who can drag her out of her self-induced emotional vacuum. Someone who shares her interests and loves her for her brain as well.”
“Wow, you’re turning into quite the psychologist,” Sam grinned, but her voice was filled with admiration. “Sounds to me like you’ve worked it all out.”
“I’m trying to,” Jody chuckled with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Now, if only the girls will follow my plan…”
“You do realize that your sister won’t be fooled by your innocent face and sweet smile, don’t you?” Sam smiled, already picturing the look of disgust on Fiona’s face after hearing about Jody’s plan.
“Of course she will, honey,” Jody smiled sweetly. “She’s in love_ She’ll accept anything to be around Robin, even though she tries very hard to show us something different. She’ll accept my…subtle meddling with grace, dignity and gratitude.”
“Jody McDonnell,” Sam laughed. “You are priceless_ But I do hope you’re right about it. What if your plan backfires?”
“It won’t, Sam,” Jody answered seriously. “They both have it bad. Besides, I do have a feeling about all this.”
“Ah, your intuition,” Sam smiled knowingly, seeing her partner nod. Stretching out her arms, Sam wrapped them around Jody and pulled her off the chair, straight into her arms.
“You’ re such a…sweetheart. I’m so lucky to have you in my life,” Sam sighed happily, kissing Jody’s forehead.
“That feeling is mutual, honey,” Jody smiled, looking up into a pair of warm, blue eyes. “I always think I’m the lucky one.”
“Maybe I don’t say it often enough,” Sam spoke softly, brushing Jody’s cheek with her lips. “But that day I ran into you, literally, at The Reef, has been a turning point in my life.”
“I know,” Jody answered, resting her cheek against Sam’s shoulder, while snuggling closer into the warm embrace. “For eight long years we hadn’t seen each other and then all of a sudden you came back into my life. And you know what?” Jody raised her head and cast Sam a look full of wonder. “We haven’t been apart since.”
“No, we haven’t,” Sam nodded. “I think it was supposed to be that way.”
“I’d like to think so,” Jody answered, reaching up and stroking Sam’s cheek with her fingertips. “I love you, Sam.”
“I love you too, my beautiful,” Sam smiled, reveling in the warmth and love that radiated from Jody’s eyes. “Do you think we can risk a kiss, before Joshua comes back in?”
“I’m sure we can,” Jody chuckled. “And even if he’d walk in on us, I’m sure he’ll get over it. Come here you,” Jody smiled, pulling Sam’s face down.
The taller woman did not object and their lips met. For a few precious moments their world was centered around each other and when they finally broke apart, they remained in each others arms, soaking up the feeling that fueled and strengthened their bond every single day.
“Thanks for giving me a ride, Fiona,” Robin spoke, staring out of the car window. Somehow it was too much to look at the photographer and see the patient long-suffering in those captivating dark-green eyes.
“It’s nice to have company, Robin,” Fiona answered softly, taking a quick glance at the woman who was sitting next to her in the car. As always, the far-away, almost sad look on Robin’s face caused a stab of pain in Fiona’s chest. Something she tried hard to ignore.
The last few days it had been painfully obvious that Robin Adams was trying to avoid her. The biologist had made an effort never to be alone with her in the same room. That knowledge, combined with the softly spoken words Fiona’s ears had picked up that one night when Robin had found her sleeping on the couch, caused the photographer’s heart to ache every time she laid eyes on the other woman. Fiona knew the best thing to do, was to stay away from Robin, but somehow she couldn’t. She was drawn to her and even though it hurt to be around her, the ache was even worse when she could not be with her at all. That’s why Jody’s suggestion had been so welcome. Fiona would never admit it, but she was grateful for her sister’s meddling. She had dreaded not being home for the weekend. And even though she knew there would be times she would regret taking Robin along, she was determined to soak up and enjoy every little, precious moment.
Fiona cast a look in the rearview mirror, seeing the dense green forest behind them as they slowly made their way down the hill. Kurt had finally given up following her car and the dog had returned to the top of the hill, where a big bowl of fresh water would be waiting for him. He would drink and then seek out his favorite spot underneath the tree, patiently waiting until his pack would be complete again.
Robin cast a look aside, stealing a glance of the dark-haired photographer’s face. She didn’t understand where the amused twinkle had disappeared to. It had been there every time Fiona interacted with her family, even with Josh, but as soon as the two of them were alone, it was gone, replaced by a pensive look, sometimes even by a dark, brooding one. Robin missed that mischievous twinkle and she tried very hard not to think about the reason why. Deep down in her heart she knew it though, but it was so hard to comprehend, let alone accept.
That night, when she had watched Fiona sleep on the couch, it had been as if, all of a sudden, a blindfold had been torn away from her eyes, making them hurt with the clarity of what was right in front of her. It had scared her and after she had fled to the safe darkness of the bedroom, she had been awake all night, tossing and turning, trying to come up with something, anything, that would make sense of the turmoil inside. It filled her with a mixture of happiness, pain, anticipation and, above all, fear. No matter how many times she kept telling herself that this was Fiona and not Abigail, a nightmare from the past, a persistent little voice in the back of her mind kept reminding her of the distance that needed to be maintained. There was safety in distance.
Robin sighed and leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes to block out the world around her.
How long would she be able to keep her distance? When would she cave in and let the feelings she kept fighting off, take a hold of her? When would she set herself up for another heartbreak?
Robin’s eyes flew open when the car came to a stop and when she cast a look aside it was into a pair of concerned, dark-green eyes.
“Are you alright?” Fiona asked with a small frown.
Robin tried to send the photographer a reassuring smile, but it was like her facial muscles had been paralyzed. She could only nod.
“I’m okay,” she answered with a hoarse voice.
“I could turn around and drive back up, if you want me to,” Fiona continued in a soft voice.
“No, it’s alright, Fiona,” Robin almost whispered, avoiding the probing eyes that were so confusing. “Really.”
“It’s just that…darn,” Fiona sighed, raking her fingers through her hair with a gesture that showed her frustration. “Robin, you don’t have to come, if you don’t want to. If you’d rather stay here it’s…”
A warm hand was suddenly placed on her arm and Fiona stopped in mid-sentence. She swallowed hard when she noticed a pair of hazel eyes looking straight at her, and for a moment it was hard to breathe. Especially when Robin smiled. That small smile which made her heart skip a beat and her palms sweat.
“Fiona, I do want to come, alright? Stop fussing,” Robin rebuked gently. “I’m a big girl and I decided to go to Brisbane, because I want to, not because I feel I have to.”
“Beauty pageants are boring,” Fiona remarked dryly, but there was a twinkle in her eyes and immediately Robin felt her spirit soar.
“I’ve never been to one,” she confessed with a chuckle. “It might be interesting and…educational.”
Especially seeing you at work. You’ re the reason I’m going anyway. The thought of not being able to see you for the next two days is maddening. Jody knows that. I could see it in her eyes. She knows…
“Robin, I…,” Fiona halted and took a deep breath. What was it Jody had told her? To stay true to herself? To be honest with herself? Fiona sucked in her bottom lip and tried to ignore the nervous ball in the pit of her stomach.
What would happen if she would tell Robin? The biologist would not be angry…would she? The worst thing that could happen, was Robin jumping out of the car and walking back up the hill. In that case, Fiona knew she would never see her again. That would be too much to bear.
“I’m glad you’ re coming,” she finally said, knowing from the look in Robin’s eyes that the other woman knew that was not what she had wanted to say and mentally she slapped herself. Maybe she would get another chance soon. Although the idea made her almost tremble in fear, she knew she had to tell Robin.
Fiona sent Robin a small smile, feeling a grave sense of loss when the other woman pulled back her hand. It was hard not to give into the urge to reach out and grab that warm hand and hold it between her own. Robin’s hands looked so soft and strong at the same time and Fiona wished she could hold them and run her fingers over the silky looking skin, kiss the palms and….
Robin must have read her mind, because the hazel eyes darkened and no matter how hard she tried, Fiona could not tear her gaze away. With fascination she watched a small ray of sunshine fall into Robin’s face, painting golden specks in the green, brown and grey of her eyes. And there was something else as well. A small flicker of hope and joy, but as soon as it had appeared it disappeared again, leaving Fiona wondering whether her imagination had been playing tricks with her mind.
Taking a deep breath, Fiona squared her shoulders and reluctantly turned her attention back to the road. They were are the bottom of the hill and as soon as they would pass the creek, they would be close to the main road.
“We’d better get going,” she sighed, putting her car back in gear and slowly crossing the wooden bridge. The big, sturdy poles rattled underneath the wheels and Fiona chuckled when she heard Robin’s soft gasp.
“Don’t worry. This bridge has been here for a long time and believe it or not, it’s still in great condition. Sam had it inspected just a couple of months ago.”
“I don’t like wobbly bridges,” Robin confessed as soon as the car hit the dirt-road again. “I just…”
She was interrupted by a curse, while Fiona slammed the brakes, immediately stretching out her left arm to keep Robin from flying forward. But the biologist was wearing her seatbelt, which had tightened as soon as Fiona’s foot had stepped on the brake.
“What the…?” she could hear Fiona mumble and even though the car had skidded to a stop, the protective arm was still holding her in place.
“What is it? I…Oh, my God,” Robin whispered. “Fiona_ ”
“I know, I know,” Fiona answered, putting the car in reverse, intending to back up on the bridge. But she didn’t get far. The sound of a muted explosion made them both jump in surprise and when Fiona looked over her shoulder, she noticed half of the bridge had disappeared into the creek below it. There was no way she could drive back up the hill and the big truck she had managed to avoid when, all of a sudden, it had pulled up in front of her, was blocking the only route to escape. Grasping Robin’s hand, she gave it an encouraging squeeze.
“Hang in there, alright?” she whispered, before a gloved hand softly, but persistently tapped the window, gesturing Fiona to open the door.
“What if I don’t?” she asked softly, aware of the nuzzle of a gun that was pointed at her chest. “You think the glass would…?”
“No, don’t risk it,” Robin’s hoarse voice immediately pleaded. “Don’t try to be a hero, Fiona. Please. Let’s see what he wants.”
Fiona took a deep breath, fighting the rage and fear that had welled up inside of her the moment a tall, broad- shouldered man had jumped out of the truck. He was wearing a mask and Fiona knew, without a doubt, he was the person she had taken a picture of that day on the mountain.
Exchanging a glance with Robin, who was very pale, but seemed to be calm, Fiona slowly unlocked and opened the door. She could only hope and pray that the security cameras Sam had installed were doing their job, recording every moment of their ordeal.
They were in trouble. Deep, deep trouble.
Continued in Part 10