December 1

Honey Wheeler ducked into the doorway of the Belden-Wheeler Agency, pressing the button that collapsed her umbrella and holding it out behind her, so that some of the water drops would splash to the outside, rather than the inside.

As she did so, an audible snap let her know one of the umbrella’s ribs had broken.

“Darn it!” she said. “Now I’ll need to stop at Crimper’s for a new umbrella before I can go home. That is, if they even have any umbrellas this time of year, although so far it’s been the rainiest November I can ever remember, and no signs of that changing any time soon, but they’ve got everything decorated for a White Christmas and the umbrellas have probably been placed back in the stockroom until after the New Year.”

Her partner and best friend, Trixie Belden-Frayne, smiled at her from the coffee station behind the reception desk. “What’s wrong, Honey? Rain doesn’t usually upset you this much.”

Honey set her umbrella down in the umbrella stand. Without stepping away from the rug placed just inside the office door, she slipped off her raincoat, letting the water droplets drip from her coat before hanging it up on the conveniently located coat rack.

“I know, I’m overreacting. But I got a text from Ella this morning on the way in to the office. She and Justin are going to her in-laws’ for Christmas. They’re leaving on December 20 for British Columbia and won’t be back until the day after New Year’s. And Matthew already warned me he was going to Idaho to ski with Hart and Hal Riker over the holidays, so he won’t be here, either.” She shrugged and threw up her hands. “I wasn’t about to try to guilt him into staying, not that it would have worked anyway.”

Trixie poured another cup of coffee and added Honey’s favorite almond mocha creamer. “I’m sorry, Hon. If you can believe it though, Jim suggested last night that the two of us—you and me, I mean—should take a girls’ trip for the holidays this year.”

Honey joined her at the coffee station and gratefully accepted the steaming mug. Eyes closed in momentary bliss, she sipped the aromatic coffee. “What in the world was he thinking, Trix?” She drew her eyebrows together in confusion. “He’s just had his knee replaced and he wants to send you off on a fun trip while he sits at home by himself?”

“Crazy, isn’t it?” Trixie agreed. She walked over to the comfortable client couch adjoining the coffee station and sat, patting the space next to her to indicate Honey should also sit. While Honey arranged the top of the coffee table to straighten the small stacks of magazines and set her mug down, she continued talking.

“What Jim said, was that by mid-December, he’ll be getting around fine, off pain meds, and driving, but he won’t be up to any sightseeing or a lot of driving. Weather will be too unpredictable to do anything fun around here, and he was afraid you’d be… well, at loose ends this year. Moms and Dad are already in Florida and won’t be back until March. So, there’s no reason for you and me to stick around.”

“But Jim—what will he do at Christmas?” Honey’s eyes were wide as she imagined her brother sitting by himself in front of the fireplace on Christmas Day, with only his dog, Patch the Fifth, for company.

“Jim said not to worry about him for Christmas. Mart and Diana have already invited both of us to their house, and their kids and grandkids will be thrilled to have Jim, whether I’m there or not.” Trixie waved away that concern. “Bobby and Barbie will be there, too, with Robin, Nicky and their two little ones. To tell you the truth, it’ll be a noisy crowd. I love my brothers, but all of those grandkids of Mart and Di’s make me crazy, running around and yelling.” She picked up a magazine and fanned herself. “Being on the shady side of fifty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” She laughed.

Honey was still trying to process the idea of taking a girls’ trip at Christmas time. She’d always spent Christmas with her two children and their grandparents. It was true that during the past year, her dad had passed away suddenly from a massive stroke, and her mother had followed him six weeks later. Jim and Trixie both said Maddie had died from a broken heart. Her brother had taken on the lion’s share of settling all the personal aspects of the Wheeler estate because Honey had been too stunned and sad to focus. Luckily, Matthew and Madeleine Wheeler had both left detailed wills and a very competent law firm was still in the process of distributing the estate per their wishes.

“What do you hear from Brian?” she asked. Trixie hadn’t yet mentioned her eldest brother.

“Brian!” Trixie gave a scornful sniff. “You knew he was here last weekend for Thanksgiving, didn’t you? Even though he stayed away from the Open House at Mart and Di’s, he visited with Moms and Dad at their patio home. He was all excited about his upcoming medical mission trip to New Guinea, full of himself as usual, so noble and self-sacrificing to work in primitive conditions for three months. Ella and Matthew saw him too, I think. But I haven’t heard from him since he left.”

“I guess I knew he would try to see your parents before they went south,” Honey agreed. “He didn’t call me or anything, though, and if he got together with the kids, I’m guessing he did it in the City over the Thanksgiving weekend. They didn’t mention it.”

The two friends sipped their coffee for a few minutes in silence. Honey reflected with a little residual bitterness on her failed marriage to Trixie’s handsome older brother. They had started out with so much joy, and the two children—deliberately planned and spaced out after Brian finished his surgical residency—completed the perfect family picture. An oopsie! third baby had upset the balance, and when little Petey was diagnosed with a heart defect, she and Brian had found themselves short-tempered and suspicious of every move the other one made. Petey’s defect was surgically repaired, but Honey couldn’t shake the fear of her child getting hurt. She may have been overprotective, but to her mind Brian wasn’t cautious enough. When Petey was in the first grade, he had what seemed like a minor bicycle accident. He was wearing a helmet, as she’d always insisted. But it was always a struggle to get the kids to wear their helmets correctly, and his wasn’t properly in place. When Petey’s head hit the sidewalk, he bled inside his skull. Because of an artificial heart valve, he had to take a blood thinner every day. Probably he shouldn’t even have been riding a bicycle, and Honey blamed herself for allowing it. The bleeding couldn’t be stopped and in a few short days the six-year-old was dead. Brian and Honey’s relationship never recovered.

Her thoughts were black, and she barely heard the jingling of the doorbell. Trixie jumped up and strode to the door to greet their potential client, and Honey gathered her thoughts, pushing them back into the small locked box where memories of Petey lived.

“Good morning! I’m Trixie Belden-Frayne. What can we do for you today?” She reached out to shake hands with the newcomer.

“My name’s Mike Gallagher. I saw where you offer background checks for businesses and individuals, including searching for missing persons.” Trixie escorted the man to her office and beckoned him to have a seat, and Honey offered to take his coat. She saw that he was middle-aged, maybe a bit over sixty, with a headful of thick white hair under his flat cap when he pulled it off. Although only of medium height, he was lean and quick-moving, and the cut of his clothing demonstrated high quality.

“Yes, we do,” Trixie replied. “Are you searching for a missing person, or looking for a background check?”

“Not a missing person, exactly,” their potential client replied. “I was adopted as a baby, and my adoptive parents were wonderful. But at this point in my life, I’d like to know some medical history of my birth parents, if possible. My adoptive parents are deceased and if I have other family who are willing to meet me, I’d like to meet them, too.” He tented his hands and scrunched up his face, as if uncertain of how his next comments might be taken. “But honestly, I would rather not meet my biological family if they’re involved in criminal activity, or anything like that.”

“Our service is able to use the databases of the major DNA testing services,” Honey explained. “If you’ve identified a person who seems to be sharing DNA with you, and you want to know more about them before you try to contact them, we can help you.”

“We’ll do a full background check on the person,” Trixie added. “And we’ll also make the initial contact, so you won’t have to expose yourself until you know if they are receptive.”

“That sounds good,” Gallagher said with a nod. “I know it may be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I’m hoping to find I have a blood relative who has a DNA record on file.”

“We understand, Mr. Gallagher.” Trixie clasped her hands on top of her desk. “And of course, we’d also perform a background check on you before releasing any identifying information about biological relatives. Our services are highly respected and the people we contact also need the security of knowing they haven’t been targeted by a criminal or con man.”

“Sure, I understand. I’d want the same confidentiality.” Mr. Gallagher extracted a checkbook from the breast pocket of his jacket. “I’m assuming you charge a retainer fee?”

“Yes, but the amount is set based on the preliminary information you provide,” Trixie explained. “For example, if you already have any name or location information on your target contact, if that location is inside the United States or out of the country; if your information is already registered in a DNA database, and so forth.”

“I see. Well, let me tell you what I know.” Mr. Gallagher withdrew a small notepad from the same pocket that had held the checkbook, and opened it. Just then, Honey heard the phone ring in her private office, and excused herself to go and answer it.

While she was on the phone, she saw the front door open and the bell jingled again. This time, however, it was their receptionist, Jade. Still standing on the rug inside the front door, Jade repeated Honey’s earlier actions in shedding rain from her outer garments. Honey waved at her from the office and Jade waved back, settling herself at the desk in just a few moments and pulling a stack of envelopes from her desk drawer. It was time to prepare the monthly bills.

Honey completed her call, but instead of checking her case files for updates, she found herself thinking about Jim’s suggestion of a girls’ trip for her and Trixie. Initially, she’d been shocked by the very idea, but now she was intrigued. She and Trixie always closed the office for three weeks at Christmas, anyway. Most people were busy with holiday activities, and weren’t prepared to put out large sums for background checks or even searches for lost relatives while in the midst of Christmas shopping.

Opening up her browser, she typed in “warm places to spend Christmas” and watched as a whole list of Mexican resorts, sites in the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Portugal, and the Florida Keys came up. But she’d been to most of those before at some time or another. This year should be completely different. Scrolling down, she saw a generic-looking headline: Bucket List: 22 Places to Enjoy a Sunny Christmas, and clicked on it without expecting much. The first article that came up showed a picture of a “snowman” made of sand, wearing a Santa hat, and the caption read: Australia.

Australia! she thought, her pulse quickening. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been there. No painful memories of trips with her parents, the kids, or Brian. For bonus points, she had Australian friends in an online book club devoted to the Lucy Radcliff mystery series. Possibly she’d be able to meet some of them in person. Quickly, she searched for a map of Australia and decided to focus on the region between Brisbane and Sydney. It wasn’t long before she’d assembled a list of potential sightseeing locations, and she redirected her search engine to find beachfront hotels.

She was so busy taking notes and copying links into a Word document for the trip, that she barely noticed when Trixie and Mike Gallagher walked past her door and stopped at the reception desk.

“Thank you, Mr. Gallagher, and we do appreciate your business,” Trixie said to their client. “Jade will give you an appointment for a couple of weeks from now to update the status of your search.”

“Thank you, Ms. Belden-Frayne,” Gallagher replied. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you and I have high hopes of meeting some new family members.”

Honey waved from her office, not completely sure if he could see her but wanting to be friendly. She heard Jade explain about the office closing on December 15 and returned her attention to the computer screen.

She had two clients scheduled before lunch, and a final verification for a corporate group background check, so she reluctantly closed down the browser for her holiday research in order to get her actual work started. Whenever she looked up, Trixie appeared to be doing the same thing.

The refurbished tearoom at Crimper’s offered lunches to go these days, and at noon, Honey decided to take advantage of their Grub Hub delivery service, since the intermittent rain was falling again. First, she called the store to ask if they could also send a new umbrella with the lunch order, and then gave Trixie’s and her own food orders. Jade had planned to run an errand despite the continued rain, so it was just the two old friends in the end.

When the food and umbrella were delivered, Honey and Trixie stepped into the small break room where there was not only a table and chairs, but a microwave and compact-size refrigerator. While Trixie pulled drinks from the fridge, Honey distributed their lunches out of the delivery bag.

“So, I’ve come up with an idea for someplace different to go for our holiday,” she said, taking her seat. “That is, someplace different where we don’t have to know a foreign language and it’s warm and sunny.” She took a bite of her sandwich.

“No foreign language, you said? Is there any place left in the world where the tourism people don’t speak English?” Trixie chuckled.

“You know what I mean, Trixie! At least you should know what I mean after all these years. Australia! Barbecue and cricket on the beach, Christmas crackers, surfing in December, and koalas and kangaroos instead of deer and horses.”

“But doesn’t it take like three days to fly there?” Trixie’s eyebrows had gone up as soon as Honey mentioned Australia. She started eating her own sandwich as she waited for her friend’s answer.

“It’s about twenty-two hours of flying but that’s part of the adventure.” Honey felt her eyes sparkling in spite of herself. “I’m still researching flights, but I’m sure we can get one that only has a couple of stops.”

“I wonder if we could possibly meet up with any of the Australian Lucy people?” Trixie mused.

“You read my mind,” Honey replied. “If we plan to spend a couple of weeks there, I’m sure we can work out something. Come on, I can tell you’re getting excited.” She smiled and finished up the half sandwich she’d allowed herself. The rest of it would be good for supper. Replacing it into the takeout clamshell, she also rolled up the bag that was still half-full of natural cut potato chips and closed it into the clamshell as well. She popped it into the fridge and opened her cookie.

Trixie’s chips were reduced to a few crumbs in the bottom of her bag, and she’d eaten three fourths of her sandwich, but she tossed the uneaten section into the trash and started on the organic cranberry walnut dark chocolate chip cookie that was left. Honey broke a small piece of her own cookie off and chewed it thoughtfully, waiting for Trixie to respond.

“I’ll talk to Jim tonight,” Trixie finally said. “He’s the one who suggested that you and I should go somewhere fun, so if he’s okay with it, let’s see if we can get it arranged.”

“I can’t believe Jim was encouraging you to take a trip without him, but if he really means it and thinks he’ll be fine here alone, Australia is someplace I’ve always wanted to visit, and it’ll take my mind off the kids deciding to spend Christmas somewhere else.”

Apparently, the stars aligned and Honey’s travel agent was able to book a flight with only one stop. There were times in her life when she’d felt guilt over the perks wealth could bring, but as she relaxed and reclined her comfortable first-class seat, she felt thankful she could get up and walk around as often as she liked to reduce the chance for blood clots during the long flight. Glancing at Trixie, she saw that her friend had slipped off her shoes and curled up with a light blanket. But she was busy gazing out her window at the swiftly passing terrain below.

December 17

After landing at the Sydney airport, she and Trixie collected their luggage. In no time they found the driver her travel agent had engaged, holding a sign over his head that read “Wheeler.” He loaded the luggage into the car and in minutes they were whisking their way to the QT Sydney hotel where they would spend two nights.

The QT Sydney was a beautiful, luxurious hotel with every amenity they could have imagined. The lobby was decorated for Christmas in reds and greens, and featured an opulent lighted Christmas tree, set off by white, glittering artificial snow on every branch. The sight felt incongruous to the two women after coming in from a blazing hot, sunny day, but it put them in mind of the holiday. Honey felt a pang as she thought about her children, far-flung from home… but then she remembered they were as close as a text or email. She brushed a hand across her face and wondered what her friend was thinking. Trixie hadn’t been away from her husband for Christmas since their marriage.

“Are you okay?” Trixie asked her. “I was sad when I first looked at the tree, but Jim wanted this for us, and that helped.”

“I’m okay,” Honey said with a slightly forced smile. “It’s a new adventure and even if I was home, the kids would be gone. There’s no one else I’d rather spend the holiday with than you!” She reached out and gave her best friend a hug.

They had carefully worked out a plan to make the most of their two and a half days in Sydney. During the brief weeks between decision and departure, they’d each listed their top choices for sightseeing. Honey’s number one pick was the famous Sydney Opera House. Their travel agent had arranged tickets for a guided tour and a performance of Carmen on the evening of their arrival. After going up and down more than two hundred steps, Honey was tired before the three-hour opera even started. But she had to chuckle when she heard a soft snore from Trixie about half an hour into the performance. She poked her friend.

“What?” Trixie asked. “I was only resting my eyes.” She brushed an unruly curl away from her face and sat up straighter. For a few minutes, at least. Soon Honey could once again hear the sounds of restful sleep. But she had found a second wind and settled back to enjoy the show.

“Oh, that was just wonderful!” she gushed as the curtain went down and the house lights came up. Trixie stretched and rubbed her eyes.

“Well, the seats were pretty comfortable,” she allowed. “Let’s get back to the hotel; I’m ready for bed.”

Honey agreed. It had been a long day and she wanted to have energy for the activities they’d planned for Day 2.

Both of them wanted to visit Bondi Beach, Barangaroo’s Aboriginal Cultural tour, and the Taronga Zoo. The three destinations made for a second full day, but both of them agreed it was time well-spent. Once more, they fell into bed and slept like the dead until the sun woke them.

“We’ve loved the sights we’ve seen already,” Honey said to the concierge. “But please tell us if there are other places convenient to the hotel that we shouldn’t miss.”

“On holiday, are you?” The smartly dressed young woman was as friendly and helpful as everyone else they’d encountered in the hospitality business since they’d landed in Australia. “We don’t get too many Yanks here. Some, but not compared to the Poms, Kiwis, and Indians.”

“Yes,” Trixie replied. “We’re on holiday, and we only have one more day in Sydney. So, we really need your advice.”

“The Queen Victoria Building is historical, it’s beautiful, and it has all sorts of shops,” offered the concierge. “It’s less than a click away—sorry, that’s a kilometer—but doesn’t open until eleven, so you probably want to take a walk in Hyde Park and see the Anzac Memorial this morning, then grab some tucker and save the shopping for the arvo.”

As the two friends set off walking toward Hyde Park, Trixie took Honey’s arm. “I thought you said you’d picked a place where the locals spoke English.” She chuckled. “Just kidding, but I think this may be another case of two countries separated by a common language.”

The park was a green oasis in the city, and the Anzac Memorial was a solemn and dignified structure in the Art Deco style. Honey was touched to learn that rather than memorializing the military leaders of the First World War, the structure listed the names of all the men who voluntarily entered military service to support their country in time of war. She and Trixie left the memorial in a reflective mood, meditating on the sacrifices made by so many young people in a time of war.

Shopping at the opulent and historic Queen Victoria Building was also convenient to the hotel.

“We can’t do a lot of shopping,” Trixie warned. “We won’t be able to fit a lot into our luggage, and shipping back to the States will cost an arm and a leg.”

“You know I’m not into a lot of shopping,” Honey said with a smile. “But we can have it shipped back if we find anything we really need.”

“Look!” Trixie exclaimed. She pointed to an elaborate display in the atrium. “Santa’s sleigh. . . but it’s being pulled by six white kangaroos instead of reindeer.” A gold-decorated, larger-than-life sleigh was piled high with gaily wrapped boxes and harnessed to six white kangaroo figures. The whole arrangement sat on a white base of fluffy, glitter-enhanced artificial snow. Since Trixie, Honey and most of their fellow shoppers wore sandals, flip-flops— thongs, Honey reminded herself—and sundresses or shorts, the effect was incongruous but charming to the New Yorkers.

“How you going?” asked a friendly voice behind them. “Finding everything you need?”

Honey turned to see a salesclerk wearing a shop’s name badge. “Yes, indeed! We’re enjoying your display here.” She waved to indicate the sleigh. “I never thought of Santa’s sleigh being pulled by kangaroos before.”

“Ah, yes!” The middle-aged woman’s eyes sparkled behind her glasses. “You see, it’s too hot here in Oz—Australia—for reindeer. So Santa recruited six white boomers to pull his sleigh down here.”

“Boomers?” Trixie asked. Honey was puzzled as well.

“Adult male roos are called boomers or jacks. No one’s sure how the name came about, but there’s a famous Christmas song called Six White Boomers. You might hear it while you’re shopping today.” The clerk smiled again and wished them a happy Christmas before moving along.

“I hope we do hear that song,” Honey commented. “I’m ready for different experiences all the way around on this trip.”

Next morning, they were able to check their luggage at the front desk and take a guided driving tour of the Blue Mountains to complete their time in Sydney. Honey had taken the time to ensure her driver’s license would be valid in Australia. Most of their remaining time in the Land Down Under would be spent at the Surfer’s Paradise Gold Coast boutique resort in Port Macquarie, up the coast almost halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. Surfer’s Paradise had its own secluded stretch of beach as well as a pool and spa. For the 200-plus mile trip, she hired a car instead of retaining a driver for the long trip. It would be part of the adventure to drive on the left side of the road.

It was a decision she soon regretted, but she was determined to see it through.

“Let’s go straight to the room,” she said when they finally arrived at the Paradise. “If my hair wasn’t already practically white, it would be now, after driving on the left side of the road all the way from Sydney.”

“I’m good with that, but once we unpack, let’s check out the poolside bar,” Trixie suggested. “I’m ready for a liquid Lamington or a Surfer’s sling.”

“I could go for a Socialite or a Chocolate Martini,” Honey agreed. “I wonder if they make fancy cocktails like those at poolside, though.”

“Only one way to find out.” Trixie laughed and waggled her eyebrows.

“G’day, ladies!” A deeply tanned, blond young man greeted them as they walked up to the reception desk at the Paradise. “’Ow ya goin’?”

Honey blinked at the sudden change from the bright sunlight outdoors to the cool dimness of the lobby. Her brain felt fried from the long drive and it took her a moment to decipher the greeting.

“Hello,” she replied with a smile. “Madeleine Wheeler. I have a reservation.”

“Right!” The young man’s white teeth flashed in a grin. “Hi, Callum and Sean-o! Wag off the footy, I’ve got some hard yakka for ya.” He lifted a hand and two more young men, equally tanned and athletic-looking, jumped up from a tufted leather sofa at one end of the lobby, which faced a large flat-screened television. She could see that a soccer match was in progress on the screen.

“These two nippers will carry your bags to your suite, ladies. Please give us a ring if you find anything out of order.” Turning to the taller of the two bellhops, he added, “Callum, make sure the aircon is flat-out.”

Callum and Sean-o swiftly lifted Trixie’s and Honey’s suitcases and a garment bag onto a luggage trolley and led the way to their suite, whistling a tune Honey recognized as Waltzing Matilda. It was hard to believe Christmas was only a week away. At the door of the third-floor suite, Honey inserted the key card into the door slot and Sean-o immediately walked to the air-conditioning unit under the picture window adjacent to the sliding glass doors leading onto a large balcony.

“It’ll be an esky here in under an hour,” he announced as he dropped the cover of the control console.

Callum lifted the suitcases from the trolley and laid them flat on the two luggage racks. “You right?” he asked with a broad smile.

“Everything looks fine,” Honey managed to reply. She could see that Trixie was still trying to decipher ‘esky’. She wasn’t sure what an esky was, but decided she could figure out a hotel air-conditioning unit.

The two bellhops maneuvered the luggage trolley out the door. “Ring the desk if you need anything; Tony the manager will make it right. Oh, and there’ll be bangers on the barbie at poolside at seven, with noshes, complimentary for the guests.” With a friendly wave, the two young men closed the door behind them.

Trixie flopped down onto the bed. “This suite is the spiffiest,” she said. “What do you want to do first?”

Their suite had a view straight out to the water, and the wide sandy beach was visible almost from the door. Honey could glimpse a row of red-and-white striped beach umbrellas and several clumps of palm trees. She decided it was just high enough for a good view and hoped she wouldn’t have vertigo if she walked out onto the balcony, which contained two chairs and a table. Just the place to watch the sun rise over the ocean.

“As much as I want to check out the poolside bar, the first item on my agenda is a nap!” She walked over to the sliding doors with the full intention of pulling the curtains closed, but the stunning beach view drew her outside instead.

“Trixie, you have to come and look at this,” she exclaimed. “It’s gorgeous!” Bright sun in a cloudless blue sky created a sparkling surface on the lapping waves, capped in white froth that washed up onto an immaculate beach of pale sand, dotted with red-and-white beach umbrellas. As tired as she was, Honey felt sure she could watch the calming, rhythmic waves for a long time. Hearing the sliding door swish open again, she turned around to see Trixie joining her on the balcony.

“If only Jim was here, it would be perfectly perfect,” Honey said.

“Yes, but maybe we can come back next year and he’ll be able to get around and enjoy himself,” Trixie replied. She shaded her eyes with her hand. “I don’t know about you, but that long drive is catching up with me.” Yawning, she closed her eyes and stretched. “I’m for a nap now, and then checking out the poolside bar.” She disappeared back into the suite. Despite the beauty of her surroundings, Honey felt her own fatigue returning, and she followed her friend into the now-chilly suite.

Trixie ducked into the luxurious spa en suite while Honey unpacked her suitcase and explored the rest of the spacious suite. In the sleeping room, two queen-size beds faced the same stunning water view as the loungeroom they had entered from the corridor.

A compact kitchen allowed space for a coffee pot, small refrigerator, microwave and three-burner stove. It was open to a dining space seating up to four people. The suite was decorated in modern, soothing tones of gray and white, with accents of blue and green.

She sighed. If she couldn’t be with her own family for Christmas, it was a gorgeous place to be.

As soon as Trixie finished in the en suite, she crawled into one of the beds and by the time Honey had freshened up, she could hear soft snoring from her sister-in-law. She slipped into the other bed and, lulled by the barely audible sounds of the waves, she was soon asleep herself.

Christmas Eve

“I’m going to go back to the room and Skype with Jim for a bit, if you’re okay, Honey.” Trixie slowly levered herself up from the poolside lounge chair. “This sun is getting pretty intense.”

“Sure, go ahead. I’m coming up too, in about half an hour. But I thought I’d try to get in a few laps, since there’s no one here for me to disturb.”

As Trixie disappeared inside the hotel, Honey stood up slowly and walked to the pool’s edge, dipping a toe in the water. It felt cold, and she was hot now. Slipping off her thong sandals, she made a shallow dive into the deep end and began to swim with the strong crawl stroke she’d used for so many years. She never looked over at the row of lounge chairs until she’d made twenty laps. Tired in a good way, and not at all cold after her exertions, she stood in the shallow water and climbed the steps on the end to exit the pool. Back at her chair, she squeezed the water from her hair and used her towel to dry herself as much as possible before donning her sunglasses and beach cover-up.

“Honey!” A familiar voice accosted her as she checked her bag for phone, book, water bottle and sunblock. Familiar in a way that sent an electric shock up her spine.

“Brian!” She shook her head in bewilderment. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in New Guinea.”

He waved at her with his right arm. A dark blue cast extended from his hand to just below his elbow. “Terminal stupidity,” he said. “Thought I could still ride a surfboard. I found out differently. As a result, I am off the surgical rotation for the next six to eight weeks.”

“I know New Guinea is just above Australia, but we’re halfway down the coast here.” Honey was still confused. “Why did you come to Port Macquarie? And do you plan to stay here the whole time you’re in the cast?”

“Ah, I’ll have to get back to work at home in ten more weeks. I’m afraid my contribution to the medical mission is toast now. But as long as I’m on this side of the world, I thought I’d take a couple of weeks to enjoy the summer weather here, instead of heading back to the great frozen North.”

“But Port Macquarie? Trixie didn’t tell you we were here, did she?”

“Trixie’s here, too?” Brian’s eyebrows shot up. “I thought Jim just had knee replacement surgery. Surely he didn’t fly around the world just a few weeks out.”

“No, of course he didn’t.” Honey gave him a look that clearly said, Have you met my brother? “He’s much too sensible for that. Instead, he told Trixie to convince me the two of us should take a nice getaway vacation. He’s off pain medicine, driving again, and going to physical therapy on his own, but he didn’t want to fly anywhere or even take a long drive. He just didn’t want Trixie to be bored, and he wanted me to get away from home, and not dwell on the kids spending Christmas elsewhere and my parents…” Her voice died away and she was glad she was wearing big, dark sunglasses. There was a short, uncomfortable pause.

“I shouldn’t be keeping you,” Brian said suddenly. “I’m sorry, you were about to go inside. I was just going to sit out here for a bit since I can’t get the cast wet. But I hope you and Trix are having a great trip.” He lowered himself to a lounge chair that was slightly shaded by an adjacent umbrella table.

“Yes, it’s been marvelous so far,” Honey told him. “Totally different from everything at home. It almost doesn’t seem like Christmas, except for things like the tree.” She indicated the Christmas tree set up just outside the door. It had no electric lights, but was decorated with plenty of miniature Santas on surfboards, fluffy koalas in Santa hats, colorful miniature surfboards and boomerangs, and white kangaroos with bells around their necks.

“Look at the time!” she exclaimed, pulling out her phone and checking it. “I’d better get back inside. We’re supposed to head into town and spend some time exploring the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail this afternoon if it’s not too hot, and then we’re going to visit a maritime museum and take a sea cruise to watch the whales.”

“Sounds like a full day,” Brian commented. “Have fun.”

“Thanks, we will. I’ll let Trixie know you’re here,” she said as she turned to head back inside.

“Sure, have her call me. Maybe I could take both of you to dinner tonight. If you don’t already have other plans.” Brian had put on his own sunglasses and she couldn’t read his facial expression.

“I’ll tell her.” As she walked back inside and waited at the lift, she mused over the coincidence of running into her ex-husband here on the other side of the world. While they had managed to behave civilly to each other for at least the past decade, the two of them did not keep in touch regularly and did not socialize. Honey had built a life for herself and her children that didn’t include Brian, and she supposed he had done the same. She wondered what was behind the invitation. Probably he was just being polite. Since he was in the same place as his sister at the holiday, he wanted to see her, and the fact that Trixie was here with his ex-wife shouldn’t stop the siblings from getting together.

But when Honey walked into their suite, her good intentions went by the wayside. Trixie sat at the table with her laptop in front of her. “Look, Honey! We’ve gotten some hits from Ancestry and Me on our guy, Mike Gallagher. You’ll never guess who has a very close match of DNA with him.”

“You’re right, I’ll never guess. So tell me,” she replied agreeably. “But I thought you were going to Skype with Jim. How’s he doing?” She dropped her bag on a chair, sat down on the other chair, and folded her arms.

“He’s good. Doing his therapy, cooking, all that stuff. He says he can tell the knee’s improving just a little bit every day. But we finished up and I thought I’d check email as long as you hadn’t come back up yet. That’s when I found out about the DNA matches.” Trixie raked a hand through her crisp, short curls, much as she had done at the age of thirteen. Her bright blue eyes sparkled just as brightly, too.

“I’m dying of suspense,” Honey told her as she leaned forward. “Do you mean to say it’s someone we know?”

“It’s Regan!”

Honey’s mouth opened in an O of surprise. “You don’t mean it!” The Wheelers’ old groom, now running a therapeutic riding academy associated with a nonprofit camp for children with various disabilities, was an orphan who barely remembered his parents. An older sister had also died, leaving a son only seven years younger than her brother.

“I do mean it. According to the database, the match indicates a relationship of a first cousin or closer. We won’t be able to find out much more than that until we’re back home, I don’t think, but that’s exciting news, isn’t it?”

“I hope he’ll be excited, if it’s true, that is,” Honey agreed. “He’s always thought he was alone in the world except for Dan, but now that he has a family of his own and even grandchildren, I wonder how he’ll react. And we’ll need to be twice as careful to research Mike Gallagher’s past to be sure he’s not trying to pull a scam.”

“Yes, and we can’t do that, either, until we’re back at home with a trusted secure network connection. But what a small world!” Trixie closed the laptop and looked at her watch. “You’d better hurry, Honey. I know the koala sculpture park has flexible hours, but if we want to see the whales, we’d better get a move on. And the concierge gave me the names of a couple of nice local spots for lunch.”

“You’re right, Trix.” Heading for the en suite, Honey abruptly turned and slapped her forehead. “I almost forgot! You’ll never guess who’s staying here right now.”

“Okay, so tell me.” Trixie grinned at her best friend.

“Your brother Brian.” Honey put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot. She wondered if she was pleased or aggravated that he was spending Christmas in the same place she was.

“Brian! What in the world is he doing here?” Trixie jumped up. “Was he out at the pool? And is he still there?”

“Yes, he was at the pool. We spoke for a few minutes. He broke his wrist trying to surf and can’t work because of the cast, so he decided to look for a nice warm place to spend the holidays. He found this one online, the same as we did, although I’m surprised they had any vacancies at the last minute,” Honey filled her in.

“You seem pretty calm about running into him here.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Well, after all this time it would be silly to start a fight at the sight of him.” Honey sighed. “I’m not especially happy to run into him, but we’re both grown-ups. If you want to talk to him, he’s probably still down at the pool. I told him we had plans this afternoon, so if you’d rather stay and visit with your brother I understand, but I really want to see the local attractions after coming here to the other side of the world to spend Christmas.”

“I’ll just run down and see if he’s still there while you’re getting ready,” Trixie decided.

“Fine with me.” Honey shrugged and headed back to the en suite. She didn’t want to be rude, but she hoped Trixie wouldn’t invite her brother to join them. She needed some time to adjust to his being here, and to decide how she felt about it. Tomorrow was the big beach barbecue that was one of this resort’s attractions for its Christmas guests. All guests in the thirty suites were invited to what was advertised as a traditional Australian Christmas Dinner. Umbrella tables would be set up on the beach, and guests were welcomed to sit and watch while the staff cooked on several large grills set up at the far edge of the terrace. If Brian was here alone—and who was to say he didn’t have company?—but if he was alone, Trixie would be sure to invite him to join them. And why not? After all, he was her brother. But it might be a bit awkward.

Her rather dark thoughts didn’t slow her automatic efficiency in the shower, then dressing and fixing her hair. It was to be a hot afternoon and she’d be wearing a hat for protection from the sun, so a smooth comb out was the extent of her hairstyling, and a diligent application of sunscreen took the place of makeup. When she re-entered the kitchen living room of the suite in a simple gauze sundress and sandals, Trixie was back in her place, filling a couple of water bottles at the kitchen faucet. Trixie was equally casually dressed, in capris and a thin tee shirt, and she also sported a wide-brimmed hat.

All afternoon Honey found her mind wandering. Instead of soaking up interesting details of maritime history and enjoying the artistically decorated, colorful koala sculptures as she’d planned, she kept wondering what Brian was doing back at the resort. Even the sight and sounds of whales breaching and lobtailing on the adventure jet cruise didn’t put him completely out of her mind. But when she and Trixie finally arrived back at the resort that night, it was dark and there was no sign of her ex-husband outside.

Honey and Trixie rose early and walked down to the beach the next morning, to find the normally peaceful stretch of sand and palm trees, a hive of activity. The university students who made up most of the holiday staff were setting up three large grills. Others were erecting a giant canopy and arranging tables and chairs under it for the lunch.

Upwind from the cooking preparation area, more staffers were laying out a cricket pitch.

“The day’s program says the match will start at ten o’clock,” Trixie said. “Do you know anything about cricket? I don’t, but I think I’d like to watch for a while.”

Honey hesitated. “Somehow I’ve always had the impression it was kind of like baseball,” she offered. “But when I’ve seen cricket matches in British movies, they call it bowling instead of pitching, and the bat is a big flat club-like thing. It didn’t look much like baseball to me.”

“We’ll just watch,” Trixie suggested. “And we won’t yell ‘Touchdown!’” when someone scores.”

Honey laughed, remembering the time she’d shouted “Touchdown!” at a baseball game. “I know one thing for sure, we won’t say we’re rooting for either team,” she reminded her sister-in-law.

“Definitely!” Trixie laughed, too. “Only cheering or barracking.” She offered her best friend a high-five and the two of them walked down to the edge of the water. It would be a good time to get a bit of exercise in before the feasting started. After what they estimated was a quarter mile walk, they turned around and started back to Surfer’s Paradise.

Teams were forming up for the cricket match. The beach was wide and flat, and apparently there was enough space to hold a match. Honey supposed the match was intended to give the tourists another taste of traditional Aussie activities for Christmas, and it would be a way to keep the guests entertained during the late morning while the Christmas dinner preparations were going on.

Guests wandered down to the large patio area in small groups, most of them also finding seats with a view of the cricket pitch. In talking with their fellow diners in the hotel restaurant over the past several days, Honey had discovered that many were Americans like themselves and found Australia as exotic and unexpected as she and Trixie did. Everything they saw was new and strange. She wondered how many of them were escaping from sad thoughts and memories.

Back at the resort’s wide covered veranda, Trixie and Honey glanced around. The cricket match had not started yet, and in order to watch it they’d have to move on out to a less protected spot.

“Let’s go inside and refill our water bottles,” Trixie suggested. “Then we should be good for a couple of hours.”

As they waited at the elevator, Honey noticed a tall man with iron gray hair walking out to the lobby from the hotel restaurant. Brian! Guiltily, she remembered his offer to take her and Trixie to dinner last night. She’d completely forgotten about that during their tourist activities yesterday afternoon. She nudged Trixie as he approached them.

“Brian!” Trixie greeted her brother with a bright smile.

“What’s up, Trix? You two flaked out on me yesterday,” he said in reply. Honey couldn’t tell if he was upset or not. She hesitated, but her best friend didn’t.

“Sorry!” Trixie threw up her hands. “The adventure jet cruise whale watch took longer than we expected, and it was dark by the time we got back to the resort. We should have called to let you know, but I totally forgot.”

“I’ll try to get over it.” He winked. Honey was shocked. The old Brian was a stickler for promptness and communication when it came to any kind of planned activity. “It was a spur of the moment invitation anyway. I knew you might already have an itinerary for the day.”

“Why don’t you join us for the barbecue?” Honey surprised herself by extending the invitation. She had been so unsure about spending several hours with her ex.

“Yes, Brian! Please do sit with us.” Trixie took her brother’s arm as she spoke. “I’m Skyping with Jim later, and you and Honey could be company for each other.”

“If both of you are sure I won’t be in the way, all right. I’ll join you.”

“Why don’t you go outside now and snag some seats for us?” Trixie suggested. “We’re going up to the suite to freshen up and get more water, and we’ll be right back.”

Brian nodded assent. The elevator doors opened and as Honey and Trixie boarded it, she saw him heading outside.

Exiting the building a few minutes later, they could see that the cricket match was starting. The players dressed all in white, were moving into position, and Trixie sounded the Bob-White whistle to get Brian’s attention. Honey scanned the section of the beach where the cricket pitch was set up, and sure enough, Brian returned the whistle and waved them over to a pair of seats with an excellent view under a clump of palm trees. Staffers walked about with programs listing the positions and game strategy for the benefit of guests who were cricket novices, and soon the three Americans were deep in study of the game of cricket.

After two hours of play, the match was called because Christmas dinner was ready to be served.

“I guess this was really just a demonstration of cricket,” Brian said. “The program says matches typically go on for two or three days.”

“It’s awfully hot to be playing a match outdoors in full gear, anyway,” Honey commented. “It must be over 90 degrees.”

“I don’t do temperature conversions in my head too well,” Trixie agreed, fanning herself with her program. “I can’t relate to the Celsius scale.”

Brian had his phone out, googling the temperature conversion scale. “According to Google, the temperature in Port Macquarie right now is 33 degrees Celsius, or 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit. So, Honey, you were pretty close. I’m guessing those guys will shed their uniforms and take a dip in the water to cool off.”

He was still speaking when Honey glanced up and saw that most of the cricketers were indeed peeling off their uniforms and tossing them into a pile. She enjoyed watching the fit, tanned young men splashing in the surf for several minutes, and then they all sprinted back to the beach, grabbed their uniforms and jogged back inside the hotel. She knew they were scheduled to set out the buffet and serve dinner. The staff was very flexible and performed a variety of duties, so they were always in motion.

As Honey and the Belden siblings took their seats, they saw that a Christmas cracker had been laid at each place. Each one was wrapped in festive paper twisted at the ends, and tied with colorful ribbon.

“I’ve always wanted to pull a Christmas cracker,” Trixie exclaimed. “I hope mine has a prize inside.” She picked up the blue foil-covered cracker at her place and shook it, but Honey didn’t hear anything rattling inside. Brian’s was red and white striped and Honey’s was green, with sparkly snowflakes.

“Let’s all pull them at once,” Trixie suggested. “One, two, three!”

Pop! Pop! Pop! All around them other diners were doing the same thing. Honey pulled a rolled-up tissue paper crown out of her cracker, and put it on. The other two followed suit. Brian had a green crown and Trixie’s was blue. “Merry Christmas!” they said to each other. Their words were echoed by the guests at the surrounding tables.

“Look, you’ve got a piece of paper in yours,” Trixie said as Honey was setting her empty cracker on the table. “What does it say?”

“They’re usually super-corny jokes,” Honey replied. “My grandmother used to have them at Christmas, but it’s been years since I’ve seen one. See if yours has anything inside.”

“Why was the snowman rummaging in the bag of carrots?” Trixie read after unfolding her joke. “He was picking his nose!”

“Ewww!” Honey wrinkled her nose in disgust, but couldn’t help giggling. “Here’s mine: How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizzas?”

When no one answered, she read the answer. “One that's deep pan, crisp and even!”

Brian groaned, but Trixie snickered and snorted before she broke into a guffaw. “Your go, Brian!” she managed to sputter.

Her brother grinned. “What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations?”

“I don’t know, what?” Honey asked agreeably.


They all laughed. “We’ll have to remember those to tell Mart and Di’s grandchildren next year,” Honey finally sputtered.

Dinner was delicious. Honey found that sliced roast ham was a Christmas tradition equally as much in Australia as in the United States, but several of the other menu items were different. Grilled sausages, prawns (which looked like large shrimp, but she was assured were not the same thing), fresh peas, grilled cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes provided a mix of familiar and nontraditional dishes, and the outdoor setting gave the dinner a unique flair for the trio accustomed to cold and snow in December.

“Everything is so good,” Trixie said with a satisfied sigh as she set down her fork and used her napkin. “I don’t know how I can possibly eat a bite of dessert.”

“I think they’ll give us a short break before they bring out the Pavlova and Lamington cake,” Brian assured her.

“Let’s take a short walk while we’re waiting,” Honey suggested. Both Beldens stood and stretched.

“Sounds like a plan,” Trixie agreed, and they set off for a stroll on the smooth, sandy beach. Lapping waves at the water’s edge splashed their feet with cooling water that Brian informed them was between 75 and 77 degrees, on average at this time of year.

After fifteen minutes they made their way back to their table and enjoyed the special Australian desserts that were unlike any they’d ever eaten at Christmas. The Pavlova had a crispy meringue base and was filled with fluffy whipped cream, fresh strawberries and kiwi slices. Honey closed her eyes in ecstasy as she savored her first bite.

“This Lamington cake is delicious!” Trixie exclaimed in turn. She picked up a bite-size cube of cake, coated in chocolate glaze and desiccated coconut.

“Did you know that both of these desserts, and even this coffee, are claimed by both Australia and New Zealand?” Brian asked. He took a sip of his flat white after swallowing the last crumb of Lamington.

“And?” Trixie asked with a lift of her eyebrows.

“The two countries are like siblings in their proximity and their competitiveness,” Brian explained. “Each claims to have originated Pavlova and Lamington. Not to mention flat white.”

“Kind of like the way you and Mart both claim to have invented Crabapple Farm Specials?” Trixie teased.

“Maybe a little different,” her brother retorted with a grin. “But just don’t tell a Kiwi that you ate a traditional Aussie dessert, and don’t show off to an Aussie by discussing the Kiwi claims.”

Honey sipped her own flat white and smiled at the siblings. She and Jim had never experienced sibling rivalry, since both were teenagers when Jim joined her family. But she’d always enjoyed watching the way the Beldens could squabble among themselves, and still present a united front to outsiders.

Trixie finished her dessert and glanced at her watch. “Jim should be up by now,” she said. “I’m going to go up and Skype with him for a bit, if you two don’t mind.”

Honey and Brian both nodded their assent and waved her off. As Trixie disappeared into the hotel, Brian glanced at Honey.

“I know we just walked before dessert, but what would you say to another stroll down the beach?”

“Sure,” she agreed. “What with all of the delicious food we’ve been eating, I need to walk as much as I can if I want to fit in my airplane seat on the way home.” She stood and slipped off her sandals.

Honey and Brian strolled down the beach in what felt like a cautious silence for some time. She glanced out to the water from time to time, where surfers were riding the waves on colorful boards. She wondered what her ex-husband was thinking about.

“Let’s turn back and walk the other way,” he suggested. “I don’t want to get too far from the resort in case there’s an afternoon squall.”

“Sure.” She was agreeable. It wasn’t like she had anything better or more pressing to do. They started back toward Surfer’s Paradise.

Brian cleared his throat. “Honey, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say.”

She stopped and stared at him. “Yes? What is it?”

“When Petey… when we lost Petey… I was a jerk, a selfish prick.”

Brian removed his sunglasses, looking down at her with those deep brown eyes, eyes she could lose herself in… at one time, not now, she reminded herself. There was something different in the timbre of his voice, though. Something she’d never heard before. Something humble. He wiped the lenses of his sunglasses on his shirt tail, then studied them as if to make sure there were no spots or smudges left.

She studied his face, wondering what to say next. For surely it was her turn. “Both of us were hurting. And we couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between us.”

“You blamed me for letting Petey ride a bike,” Brian said baldly. “You were probably right. But I hated to think of him living his life in a bubble of overprotection. And I thought you should listen to me, because I was a healthcare professional.”

“I wanted to wrap him in a cushioned space suit,” she agreed. “Yes, I was overprotective, but you were so arrogantly sure you needed to call all the shots…” She stopped and jammed her hands into the pockets of her sundress. It wasn’t a time for accusations. Nothing would bring Petey back, and she knew Petey’s dad had suffered as much as his mother. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled-for.”

“Maybe, but I was an arrogant ass just the same.” Brian replaced his sunglasses and pushed a hand through his still-thick hair as he kept walking.

“And I froze you out for it. Maybe we could agree mistakes were made on both sides.” Honey didn’t look at him.

He reached for her arm. “Look, I blamed myself, and there was nothing I could do to bring back my son. I bottled up the pain and the anger I felt, but in hindsight, it had to be coming off of me in waves.”

Honey didn’t shake him off, although she felt her lips quiver and tears came to her eyes. She stopped walking and took a shaky breath, putting both hands up, palms out. Why did he have to dredge up hurtful memories now?

Brian spoke again, his words coming out in a rush. “We did raise two fine kids, who are hard workers and are on the cusp of solid careers doing worthwhile work.” He reached for her hands, and she didn’t try to stop him. “Look at me, Honey… please. Ella and Matthew turned out great. Mostly due to your good influence.”

Reluctantly, she raised her eyes to his again. “Thank you for that. And maybe you weren’t around much when we first split, but later on you did make an effort to be part of their lives. I appreciate that.”

“Maybe we could get together for dinner some time, after we get back home.”

“Maybe.” Honey hesitated. Should she put brakes on that idea? Much of the pain and anger from the breakup of their marriage had dissipated. But she still felt wary of getting involved with the man who had once meant everything to her. Finally, she decided honesty was the best policy. “But I’m not looking for a relationship, so let’s not read more into it.”


They walked on in silence again, not touching. Honey felt both curious and confused. After all these years, what had led Brian to initiate such a reconciliation in their relationship? She watched as one surfer after another emerged from the water with their boards.

“Why are they all coming in?” she asked, knowing he’d had experience with surfing.

“I expect the waves aren’t as good here when the tide goes out,” he answered. “See how much wider the beach is now?”

She nodded. “Looks like it might storm soon, too.” She pointed to the horizon, where dark clouds hovered over the water.

“Yeah, looks that way.” Brian nodded. Just then, a gust of wind blew the hat from Honey’s head and she felt raindrops on her face. She grabbed the hat before it could get too far away, and both of them started to run as the raindrops turned into sheets of water. Brian pulled off his shirt to wrap his cast in a vain attempt to keep it dry. Luckily, they weren’t far from the resort.

As they entered the hotel, Honey shivered at the chilly air on her wet skin. Brian hurried her to the elevator, or lift, as the staff called it. “You’d better get into some dry clothes,” he told her as he pressed the “Up” button.

“You’d better hurry and dry that cast,” she said, eyeing the damp shirt as he unwound it.

“No worries, I’ll have it dry in a jiffy with my hairdryer,” he assured her. A minute later he exited at the second floor. She continued to her own floor, and entered her suite to find that Trixie was asleep, curled up on the sofa. The sudden squall had dissipated her own turbulent emotions. After changing into dry clothing, she spent time putting tip money into small wrapped gift boxes for the staff who had been so helpful to her and Trixie. She’d never really experienced the tradition of Boxing Day in the British tradition, since the Wheelers simply gave Christmas bonuses to all of their domestic staff. Surely the boxes of cash would be acceptable, though.

“Did you and Brian have a good time?” Trixie’s voice startled her. She turned around to see her friend sitting up and rubbing her eyes.

“We took another walk before the rain started.” Honey nodded toward the window but was surprised to see that the sun was coming out again. The balcony was wet, but the rain had stopped.

“Did you talk? I thought you might be back in time to Skype with Jim but he had to get in another session of his physical therapy exercises before bedtime. It’s still Christmas Eve at home, you know. So I took a nap. That dinner just about did me in.”

“A little.” Honey hesitated. It felt too soon to say she and Brian had buried the hatchet. She decided not to say more. Wait and see how it goes.

Trixie stood and walked over to where Honey was working at the table. “Are those your boxing Day gifts? What a good idea!”

“I have some extra paper if you want to use it.” She was glad Trixie hadn’t pressed the issue of Brian. Her curious friend had learned patience over the years. Trixie sat down and soon she was engrossed in her own Boxing Day gift wrapping.

December 28

From the time she’d first decided to spend Christmas in Australia, Honey had hoped to meet some of her fellow Lucy Radcliff fans while she was in their country. She’d been delighted to learn a Lucy meet-up was taking place in Brisbane the weekend after Christmas, when many of their Australian friends were on holiday from work and school. Upon learning Brisbane was six hours’ driving time from Port Macquarie, her hopes had been dashed. The drive from Sydney was two-thirds the distance and she and Trixie had both been stressed out from driving on the left side of the road. Reluctantly, they had decided to skip the Lucy gathering. But a relentless Trixie had discovered a local airport offering a round-trip ticket to Brisbane and back to Port Macquarie in the same day, and they’d immediately booked the flight.

Rising at dawn to make it to the Port Macquarie airport, Honey hugged herself in excitement. “I can’t believe we’re actually going to meet Janice, Jo, Emma, Diana, Dee…” her voice died away.

“Julia, Sandra, Jayne, and maybe more,” Trixie finished up. “What’s even more good news is that Janice will meet us at the airport and take us back after the lunch.”

The Australian group was just as friendly and welcoming as everyone else they’d met during their stay, and were as excited to meet their American friends as Honey and Trixie were to meet them. The whole group enjoyed a delicious lunch at an intimate, but quiet Vietnamese restaurant. There were only a few other diners, so Honey and Trixie were able to follow the conversations without much trouble. Janice drove them back to the airport in plenty of time to catch their flight back to Port Macquarie.

“It’s been lovely meeting you,” she told them with a hug for each one. “Remember us when you’re back in the States.”

“Thank you for making it work out so we could join the group for lunch,” Honey replied.

“It was our lucky day,” Trixie added. “You helped make sure this has been a trip we’ll never forget.” They all hugged again.

“We’d better hurry on to the security check-through,” Honey said with a sigh. “Thanks again!”

“Cheers, and catch you later!” Janice waved and soon disappeared from their sight as they moved forward in the line.

During the long flight home, Honey found time to reflect on the past couple of weeks. In the past year, she’d been buffeted by the storms of life. Losing her parents, and then being forced to accept that her children were grown and venturing out into the world—away from her and home—dealing with those things had nearly capsized her personal ship. The unwavering love and support of her brother and her best friend, and her belief that she and Trixie did meaningful work that helped other people, had sometimes been all that kept her afloat.

The Christmas trip, packed with new experiences, and the unexpected meetup with Brian, had helped her shed her fear of the losses that inevitably came with age. Life was filled with opportunities to experience joy and sorrow. Friends made the joys sweeter and kept the sorrows from turning into bitterness. One couldn’t have too many friends, and if she and Brian could renew their old friendship… there was hope for the future, regardless of whether or not it flared into romance.

New Year’s Day

Honey was just finishing her second cup of coffee and perusing the special holiday edition of the Sleepypside Sun when her phone rang. She considered letting it go to voicemail, and waiting to see if the caller would leave a message. Her friends and family—and especially her children—were basically into texting, not calling. But on the third ring she glanced at the screen, and saw the name Brian, although she didn’t immediately recognize the number.

It had been several years since she and her ex-husband had needed to talk over situations involving the kids. At that thought, her heart leaped into her throat. The kids—had something happened to Ella or Matthew? She grabbed the phone and pressed the “accept” icon.

“Happy New Year!” His voice was warm and familiar.

“Brian! You scared me to death!” Even as she scolded him, Honey felt the fear drain from her clenched muscles, and she took a deep breath. “When I saw your name on the caller ID, I was immediately scared to death you had bad news about one of the kids.”

“Sorry I scared you,” he replied. “I just wanted to see if you’d like to go to dinner with me. I know it’s short notice, but I just got home late last night.”

“I thought you were staying on for another week,” she replied, using delaying tactics.

“I was, but then I had an opportunity for a really good price on a last-minute standby ticket. And really, why stay in Paradise when I could come home to ice, snow, and slush for another three months?”

“Hmmm, yes, why indeed?” Despite her lingering annoyance at the worry he’d caused her, she couldn’t help laughing a little. Despite his reputation as “boring Brian” he’d always had a sense of humor and always been able to make her laugh.

“Anyway, what would you say to dinner at Mulino’s of Westchester? I’m heading over to Jim and Trixie’s this afternoon and I’ll pick you up about six.”

Honey was slightly taken aback at the mention of Mulino’s, one of the top restaurants in White Plains as well as one of the most expensive. But Brian didn’t need to watch his pennies, the way he had when they were first married. He was a successful surgeon and could afford it. In fact, for him it probably wasn’t even a question of cost; just a place he liked to eat. She was reading way too much into this.

“All right. I’m looking forward to it.”

As she ended the call, Honey felt a smile tugging at her lips. Anticipation bubbled up, in defiance of her determination to be cautious.

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Author’s Notes

11,537 words

Fannie, I was so excited to have the opportunity to write a story for you! Your faithful reading and commenting on my stories always warms my heart. I tried to sneakily solicit readers’ ideas and suggestions through a Christmas Silly Survey, but never could manage to draw you in, LOL. So I finally went with the three things I know about you: you’re retired, you’ve been single for the past twenty or so years, and you took a trip to Australia a few years ago. I hope you’ve enjoyed Honey and Trixie’s story.

A big thank-you to my faithful editors, Ronda, Ryl, and Trish, who helped me shape the story into something readable.

Thank you also to the faithful readers, who inspire me to continue writing and who provide support to all of our writers here at Jix. Thank you to the founders and the wonderful ladies who shepherded our community for the past almost-twenty years, and to the new leadership team that has worked hard to maintain the welcoming spirit of Jixemitri for all who love Trixie Belden and the Bob-Whites of the Glen.

This is a standalone story, unrelated to my regular universe or any other non-universe stories. There are no plans to continue it, but you never know!

I consulted many websites devoted to Australian tourism, slang, time differences (which are probably still off!), F to C temperature calculations, etc.! The following site provided the cracker jokes I quoted verbatim: (not an active link in case it goes inactive at some point).

“Six White Boomers” is a well-known Australian Christmas song, written by Australian Rolf Harris and American John Brown in 1960.


Poms —British people

Kiwis —New Zealanders

Yanks —Americans

Tucker —something to eat

Arvo —afternoon

Ow ya goin’/ How you going? —How are you?

“Wag off the footy, I’ve got some hard yakka for you” —“Turn off the football, I’ve got some hard work for you.” (Note, my internet sources for Australian slang indicated “footy” refers to Australian-rules football, rather than soccer—which is also called football in most parts of the world. Generally, Americans and Australians both use the word soccer, according to those sources). I don’t know if the guys were really watching soccer or AR football, but Honey *thought* it was soccer. We know she’s not a sport expert, though! AR football is played with a ball shaped like an American football, and the ball can be touched with hands, but uniforms are closer to soccer uniforms, with shorts and no pads or helmets. In December, a game of footy would likely have been an exhibition game, rather than part of the regular season.

Esky —icebox; portable cooler. In fact, Esky is a brand name of a cooler manufactured today by Coleman Australia; invented by Malley’s, a Sydney refrigeration business. Derived originally from Eskimo; “esky” is so widely used it’s almost considered a generic term.

Bangers —sausages

Noshes —snacks/ appetizers

Rooting —in Australian usage this refers to sexual intercourse

Prawns —a crustacean similar to shrimp, but anatomically different

Merry Christmas, Fannie!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2010 by MaryN/Dianafan. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2016.

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