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‘What’s wrong with you people?’ Ailsa asked. ‘I come up with a perfectly good solution for Will to get rid of this woman who’s pestering him, and you all sit there like stunned mullets. Will has a problem. He and Cleo are on their own. Their children are sharing a house. It makes perfect sense they’d get together. You can always pretend to call it off later,’ she said, looking straight at Cleo for agreement.

‘I think they both need to think about it, sweetheart,’ Martin said, chuckling.

Cleo turned to glance at Will who had remained silent during this conversation. What did he think? Surely he wasn’t prepared to go along with Ailsa’s suggestion? ‘Why don’t you just say “no” to her?’ she asked.

‘I’ve tried saying that,’ Cleo,’ he said. ‘She just seems to think I’m playing hard to get and it hasn’t turned her off. I don’t know what else to do. But I agree with you. It’s a mad idea. There has to be another way.’

Ailsa’s face fell, her shoulders drooped, but she didn’t appear to be deterred.

Martin put an arm around her shoulders. ‘Leave it, honey. You tried, but can’t you see it’s not going to work?’

Cleo gave a sigh of relief.

But, as she drove home, thinking again of what Ailsa suggested, of her own reaction, of Will’s agreement, she wondered if she’d been too quick to veto the idea.


Tuesday was Cleo’s day off. She had agreed to meet Bev inThe Greedy Geckofor lunch. It was partly a research visit to check out the competition, something they liked to do from time to time. And she couldn’t wait to share Ailsa’s ridiculous suggestion with her friend.

As she pulled out one of the maxi dresses she loved to wear when she wasn’t working, Cleo caught a glimpse of herself in the bedroom mirror. While she loved the comfort of the long loose dress, she wondered for the first time if it made her look like the hippie she used to be when she and Stan lived in the Byron Bay hinterland along with other similar groups. Apart from the black capri pants and white Pandanus tee-shirts she wore for work, she hadn’t replenished her wardrobe in the six years she’d been here.

Back then, their subsistence lifestyle hadn’t stretched to fashion clothes, so most of hers had been purchased at the local market and tended to be hand-made and tie-dyed. Despite being more conservative than many of their community, her appearance helped her fit in. She’d tried to lose the image since coming to Bellbird Bay, but she supposed her clothes combined with her long hair and the laid-back attitude she tried to assume at work, might give the wrong impression.Was that what had prompted Ailsa to try to match her up with Will Rankin?Though, to be fair to Ailsa she’d only suggested theypretendto be a couple.Was that what rankled?

Bev was already seated in a corner by the window of the café when Cleo walked in.

‘I ordered cappuccino,’ she said, ‘and I picked up a couple of menus.’ She handed Cleo a food-splattered card.

‘Mmm,’ Cleo said, her eyes scanning the offerings, ‘They do a variety of healthy options. Not vastly different from us, though catering more for takeaway, I suspect.’

‘Do you want to order?’ Bev asked, seeing a waitress coming towards them.

‘Yes.’ She smiled at the young girl. ‘I’ll have the salad chicken wrap,’ she said. ‘Bev?’

‘I’d like one of your individual quiches with salad, please.’ Bev handed the girl their menus.

‘Now,’ Bev said, ‘What gives? It was the working bee yesterday, wasn’t it? Martin picked up that old table of my mother’s. I don’t know why I kept the old thing, but I’m glad it’s come in useful after all. It’s seen a lot of backyard barbecues in its time.’ She chuckled.

‘Yes… the working bee. I only provided the food afterwards. Then…’ she took a deep breath, '...Ailsa… I know she’s your friend, Bev, but she came up with the most ridiculous idea.’

Bev raised one eyebrow.

‘She came up with the idea that Will and I… Oh, not that we make a match of itper se, but that wepretendto be a couple.’ Seeing an expression she couldn’t identify on Bev’s face, she hurried on. ‘It seems he has this woman who’s bothering him – stalking him even – and she – Ailsa – thinks if he and I act like a couple it will scare her off.’

She stopped and waited for Bev’s reaction, fully expecting her friend to agree with her that the whole idea was crazy.

Instead, Bev took a sip of coffee before replying. ‘It’s not as crazy as you might think.’ Bev looked reflective. ‘I’ve often thought you and Will…’

‘You are joking, aren’t you? Tell me Ailsa is way off beam here.’

‘Ailsa’s not often wrong,’ Bev said gently. ‘She had a difficult time, herself, before she and Martin sorted things out together. She’d understand some of what you’ve gone through, are going through. Though her husband didn’t die. But would it really be so awful? Will’s a decent guy. You’re both on your own. Your children are sharing a house. What?’ she asked seeing Cleo’s expression.

‘That’s exactly what she said. Have you been talking to her?’ Cleo felt a burst of anger flare up. The surprised expression on Bev’s face did nothing to alleviate it.

Their meals arrived at that point, but Cleo had lost her appetite.

‘I haven’t talked to Ailsa for ages,’ Bev said, ‘and she certainly hasn’t mentioned any of this to me. Why are you so against it…if it would help Will? As far as I know, since Dee died, he’s never expressed interest in any other woman. I’m sure he’s had plenty of offers – he’s a good-looking man – but possibly none have been as persistent as this one seems to be. He and Martin were a couple of terrors with the girls when they were young, but once Will met Dee, he settled down. He’s one of the good guys, one of the town’s heroes with all the work he does for various charities.’

Cleo gazed at Bev incredulously.A town hero?It wasn’t how she’d pegged Will Rankin.But what did she know of him?She’d only met him a couple of times and each time, he’d looked like someone who… ‘He reminds me of my husband,’ she said.

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