‘Different.’ Cleo didn’t want to go into details. Given Bev was Martin’s sister and Ailsa’s best friend, the news would get around soon enough. And Bev already knew about Ailsa’s plan for her and Will. Cleo didn’t want to hear her say “I told you it was a good idea”.
‘It’s my book club tonight. You should consider joining,’ she said, to change the subject.
‘I don’t know how I could find the time. I’ve never liked the idea of reading a book someone else chose for me. I enjoy deciding for myself what I want to read.’
‘Well, if you ever change your mind…’
Once home, Cleo poured herself a glass of wine and took a quick gulp before turning on her favourite playlist and heading for the shower. As the water cascaded over her, she tried to forget the worries which were spoiling her normally upbeat frame of mind – Will, surf lessons, Han’s safety and the girl in California – by singing along to her favourite songs. She now regretted bringing up Kerri-Ann’s message with Hannah again.
But when she was towelling herself dry, Cleo began to think she should have asked Pat more about Kerri-Ann. Maybe she should try to contact the girl herself, but what would she say to her – warn her to stay away? And the surf thing. Cleo wasn’t sure why it worried her as much as it did. Maybe she could ask Ailsa about it when they next met.
She dressed in one of her patterned maxi-dresses, vowing as she checked herself in the mirror, to visit Greta’s boutique. It was time she started to change her image. Maybe she’d even cut her hair. Cleo tried to imagine what she would look like with a shorter style, holding her long curls up loosely behind her head. Then she let them drop to her shoulders. No, that would be going too far. She loved her long tresses – and Stan had loved them, too, enjoying running his fingers through them. She shivered, remembering how his touch had inflamed her. Despite everything, Cleo had never stopped loving Stan, never stopped enjoying the intimacy of their life together.
Back in the kitchen, Cleo reheated some pasta and ate it quickly. Then she picked up her bag, ensured she had the book she’d been reading, and, balancing a box of Ruby’s chocolate brownies – her contribution to the evening – on one arm, headed off.
The book club met in members’ homes, and it was supposed to happen on a rota system. But, more often than not, Dot would offer to host the group, and no one was game to argue with her. So, tonight, Cleo drove across town toThe Bay Village Lifestyle Resortand pressed the security button at the gate.
Grace and Libby were already there, regaling Dot with the tale of something which had happened at the library. Cleo felt awkward, as if she was interrupting. She knew it was stupid. They were friends. They had welcomed her into the group. But, somehow, the house in this gated community always made Cleo feel as if she didn’t belong.
However, once the others arrived, and they were all seated in a circle in Dot’s well-appointed living room – her husband was conveniently out for the evening – she felt more comfortable.
The meeting progressed in the usual fashion, following Dot’s designated pattern. Each member was permitted – required – to give their impression of the book without interruption. Cleo always felt a twinge of amusement when Dot produced her little handbell which she threatened to use if anyone spoke for longer than their allotted time. Then there was the second round during which more discussion was allowed. Sometimes, Cleo wondered why she continued to attend. But she enjoyed the company of the women, loved reading the books, and it always amazed her how many different opinions there were on the same piece of writing. Even Dot, with her rigid ideas on how the meeting should be conducted, was a good woman at heart.
As Cleo had anticipated, this month’s choice proved to be controversial, resulting in lots of discussion as they went around the circle for a second time. They were still arguing over certain points raised, when Dot signalled to Grace, and the two women disappeared into the kitchen to make the tea and coffee with which the evenings always ended.
‘Are those Ruby’s brownies?’ Greta asked, biting into one of the rich, chocolate treats. ‘Yum.’
‘Cleo was kind enough to provide them.’ Dot smiled at Cleo, who bowed her head in acknowledgement.
‘What’s this I’ve heard about you, Cleo – you and Will Rankin?’ Dot asked.
All eyes turned to Cleo who blushed. She should have expected this. Dot was one of Bellbird Bay’s chief gossips and could be expected to know everything almost before it happened.
‘It’s nothing. I had dinner with Ailsa and Martin, and he was there, too.’ She tried to brush it off.
‘Hmm.’ Dot pursed her lips. ‘Not what I heard.’
‘Leave her alone, Dot.’ Grace put a hand on her sister’s arm. ‘Who Cleo has dinner with is her business. Sorry.’ She smiled at Cleo.
‘It’s okay.’ Cleo wondered if she should have admitted to what was still only in the early stages of the pretence, but she couldn’t bear to be the centre of gossip. And if Dot Butler got her teeth into something it would be all around Bellbird Bay in no time. Surely that wasn’t what Ailsa intended? Surely it was sufficient if the Joy woman believed it?
The conversation moved on, and Cleo stopped listening, becoming engrossed in her thoughts, only to be pulled back to the present when she heard her name. ‘Sorry, I was wool-gathering,’ she said.
‘We were talking about the missing girl,’ Libby said. ‘The police don’t appear to be making any progress. You have a daughter around the same age, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Hannah.’ The curl of fear that was never far away, uncoiled again.
‘Aren’t you worried about her?’ Dot asked, peering at Cleo.
‘Of course I am. But I can’t let the fear take over my life. She’s old enough to make her own decisions.’
‘I know what you mean.’ Dot’s sister, Grace, smiled at Cleo. ‘I have two daughters, and neither would thank me for trying to tell them what to do. Does your daughter live with you?’
‘She did, but she’s moved out to share a house with two friends.’And I have no idea what she does with her time, where she spends it or with whom, Cleo thought, with a shiver.
‘They all do, eventually,’ Grace said. ‘My two went off to uni in Sydney and stayed there. Mel – my younger daughter – only came to live with me again recently, and now she’s moved on again.’